Who Was Juliette Gordon Low?
Juliette Gordon Low spent her early life in the South as a member of a socially and financially elite family. After the death of her millionaire husband, Low met William Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, which inspired her to create the Girl Scouts of the United States of America. Following a battle with breast cancer, she died in Savannah, Georgia in 1927.
Juliette Gordon Low was born Juliette Magill Kinzie Gordon on October 31, 1860, in Savannah, Georgia, to father William Washington Gordon and mother Eleanor Lytle Kinzie. The second of six children, Low was named for her maternal grandmother but was quickly dubbed "Daisy," a common nickname at the time. Low's parents described her as "a beautiful baby" with "a sweet disposition."
Civil War Turmoil
Entering infancy shortly before the Civil War, Low's childhood was complicated by the war efforts and her parents' conflicting views on slavery. Her father, the Georgia-born owner of the enslaved person-populated Belmont cotton plantation, believed in the secession of the South from the Union; on the other hand, her Northern-born mother, whose family had helped found the city of Chicago, believed in abolition.
While Low's father was joining the war efforts on behalf of the South, her maternal relatives were enlisting in Northern militias. Low's mother struggled with the conflicting feelings of having loved ones on both sides of the war, as well as harsh treatment from neighbors who didn't understand the family's divided allegiances.
As the war dragged on, Low's mother grew increasingly despondent about her husband's absence and her ability to provide for the family. By the time Low was four, the South had lost the war, and the little girl—malnourished and sickly—still had yet to see her father for more than a few days at a time.
Move to Chicago
In the closing days of the Civil War, the Gordons, under the protection of General William Tecumseh Sherman, moved to Illinois to stay with Eleanor's parents, where Low was exposed to an entirely different way of life. Her grandfather was a founder of the Chicago Board of Trade, the Chicago Athenaeum and the city's public schools. He was also a savvy investor who earned his wealth through the railroads, copper mines and his presidency of the Second State Bank in Chicago.
As a result of her maternal grandparents' influence in the community, Low encountered a variety of new people, including many Native Americans, who sought business and investment advice from her grandfather. Her interactions with Native Americans gave her an early appreciation of Native American culture, which she would idealize for the rest of her life.
The family soon reunited in Savannah and, thanks to her mother's efforts to recoup their financial losses in the South, Low's father was able to revitalize the Belmont plantation.
Low's empathy for others and unconventional outlook on life became more apparent as she grew older. Her siblings often commented on her inability to keep track of time, her frequent "experiments" that went awry and acts of kindness that resulted in good-natured disasters. Her antics earned her the new nickname "Crazy Daisy," giving her a reputation for eccentricity that would stick with her through adulthood.
Her adventurous and eccentric nature resulted in a restlessness of spirit when she entered a series of boarding schools, including the Virginia Female Institute, Edgehill School, Miss Emmett's School and Mesdemoiselles Charbonniers. While she was taught the typical social graces of a highborn lady in school, excelling in drawing, piano and speech, she yearned instead to explore, hike, play tennis and ride horses—all activities discouraged by her restrictive finishing schools. Defiant in nature, Low was frequently caught breaking the rules.
By the age of 19, Low was torn between being a dutiful daughter and pursuing her dreams of being an independent woman. After a scuffle with her mother over finances, Low was able to convince the family that she should move to New York to study painting‚ one of the few pastimes considered appropriate for women of her era. Low believed she might be able to turn her painting into a means of financial support and self-sufficiency.
Marriage to William Mackay Low
She was also expected to marry, which she did at the age of 26. Her union to wealthy cotton merchant William Mackay Low, who she considered her one true love, took place on December 21, 1886.
During their ceremony, a grain of rice, thrown by a well-wisher, became lodged in Low's ear. The pain of the impacted rice became so great that the couple was forced to return home to have it removed. As a result, Low's hearing was permanently damaged and resulted in frequent ear infections and eventual deafness in both ears.
Because of her husband's wealth, the Lows traveled often and socialized with the educated and monied. They purchased the Wellesbourne House in Warwickshire, England, and spent their autumns hunting in Scotland and winters seeing family in the United States.
William eventually began spending more time apart from his wife, gambling, partying, hunting and splurging on extravagant toys. Low was also gone on frequent trips, searching for cures for her hearing loss. She also struggled with ovarian abscesses, a primary reason the two never had children.
Divorce and Legal Difficulties
By September 1901, Low was aware that her husband had taken on a mistress, an actress named Anna Bateman. As a result, William requested a divorce—at the time a shocking decree—but Low had to prove desertion, adultery and cruelty, all of which would require besmirching her name as well as those of her husband and Bateman.
During this time, William also began drinking heavily and his social circle, worried about his mental and physical stability, all but deserted him. Low's friends and family rose to support her, hosting her at their houses so she would have socially acceptable reasons to be away from home.
Before the divorce proceedings could be finalized, however, William died of a seizure during a trip with his mistress. Low subsequently discovered that her husband had amended his will, leaving the bulk of his fortune to Bateman. Low was forced to contest the will, eventually negotiating a settlement that provided her with an annual income and the Savannah Lafayette Ward estate.
After the loss of her husband and much of her financial stability, Low began traveling the world, sailing to France, Italy, Egypt and India.
Founding the Girl Scouts
Meeting Boy Scouts Founder Robert Baden-Powell
In 1911, Low had a chance meeting with British general Robert Baden-Powell, a war hero and founder of the Boy Scouts. Originally determined not to like Powell (she believed he had received unduly large credit for the success of the Second Boer War and the Siege of Mafeking), Low was instead instantly charmed by his manner.
Baden-Powell had founded the Boy Scouts with the intention of training young boys for defense and preparedness in case of military invasion. Baden-Powell emphasized that the training should be fun, an idea that Low deeply appreciated.
The two shared a love of art and travel, as well as similar family backgrounds. They became instant friends and started sharing ideas for the formation of a scouting troop for girls.
Success of the Girl Guides
The early troops, known as Girl Guides, were led by Baden-Powell's 51-year-old sister, Agnes. These were girls who had appeared in their brothers' Boy Scout troops, dressed in piecemeal uniforms and eager to learn the same skills the boys were learning. Agnes was overwhelmed by the increasing number of girls showing an interest in becoming a Girl Guide, and both the Baden-Powells and Low agreed that these girls should have their own groups.
Girl Scouts Take Root in America
Low started several troops in Scotland and London, for girls of varying income brackets. The effect on the girls' self-esteem was so striking that Low decided she had to take the program to the United States, starting with her hometown of Savannah.
On March 12, 1912, Low registered the first troop of American Girl Guides. The first of the 18 girls to register was Margaret "Daisy Doots" Gordon, her niece and namesake. Renamed the Girl Scouts in 1913, Low used her own money, and the resources of friends and family, to push the organization to new heights.
The Girl Scouts Today
While membership has dropped from a peak of 3.8 million in 2003 to approximately 2.6 million, Low's Girl Scouts of the United States endures as one of the most important educational organizations for girls in the world. Prominent alumni include pop stars Taylor Swift and Mariah Carey, journalist Katie Couric and actress Gwyneth Paltrow.
Death and Accolades
Following years of ill health, Low discovered she had breast cancer in 1923. She kept the diagnosis a secret, instead continuing to work toward making the Girl Scouts into an internationally renowned organization.
Low died from the final stages of cancer on January 17, 1927, and was buried in her Girl Scout uniform in Laurel Grove Cemetery in Savannah. Her friends honored her efforts by establishing the Juliette Low World Friendship Fund to finance international projects for Girl Scouts and Girl Guides.
Low has received an array of posthumous honors for her creation of the Girl Scouts, including the issuing of a commemorative postage stamp in 1948, and induction into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1979. In 2012, President Barack Obama named her a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
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