In 1912, Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low gathered girls from her cousin Nina Pape’s school in her hometown to share exciting plans for a new outdoors and educational club for girls. From that first group of 18 Savannah girls, Daisy’s club grew quickly to become Girl Scouts of the USA, an organization that today serves millions of girls all over the United States and the world.
During the Progressive Era, before women in the United States had the right to vote, 51-year-old Juliette sparked a worldwide movement that equipped girls to learn new skills, embrace adventure, and be their best selves.
Juliette Magill Kinzie Gordon (nicknamed “Daisy”) was born on October 31, 1860, the second of six children. Her parents were Eleanor Kinzie Gordon of Chicago, Illinois, and William W. Gordon of Savannah, Georgia. Daisy was raised in a prominent Savannah family that believed in community service, education, and being good neighbors, but they also enslaved people to work in their household and businesses, including children. When the Civil War began in 1861, her father fought for the Confederacy. Her mother’s Illinois relatives fought for the United States. When Daisy was four years old, the end of the Civil War brought freedom for enslaved people in the United States. These are hard things to think about, but they are part of Juliette Gordon Low’s story.
Daisy was a sensitive, curious, and adventurous girl known for her sense of humor, creativity, and concern for others. She was interested in animals, nature, sports, and the arts. Daisy’s childhood was marked by frequent illnesses including meningitis, malaria, and chronic ear infections. Summers were spent in north Georgia with her brothers and sisters and many cousins swimming in the Etowah River, climbing trees, and playing make-believe. Daisy was often the ringleader for their adventures. She made up games, started a service club with her friends, and even wrote and directed plays that she performed with her siblings and cousins.
Daisy’s parents could afford to send their children to boarding schools to continue their education. She went to schools in Virginia and New Jersey. As a teen, she attended finishing school in New York City. Daisy’s favorite subject in school was art. She enjoyed painting, drawing, and sculpting for the rest of her life.
Juliette fell in love with handsome William Low, son of wealthy British businessman Andrew Low, who had a house in Savannah. Her parents worried that Willie Low did not work for a living or have serious interests. However, when Willie Low inherited a fortune after his father’s death, they did not stand in Juliette’s way. She married William Low on December 21, 1886 at the house that is now known as the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace.
At Juliette’s wedding, guests threw rice at the newlyweds, a good-luck tradition at the time. Unfortunately, a grain of rice went into her ear. Daisy had already lost some hearing because of childhood illnesses and an improperly treated ear abscess. The operation to remove the rice damaged her hearing even more. For the rest of her life, Juliette was very hard of hearing.
Juliette became a popular hostess among her husband’s society friends in England and Scotland. Her life was filled with hunting parties, society dances, and royal court visits. Although most of her married life was spent in England, Juliette returned often to the United States to connect with friends and family. These visits gave her support and comfort as she struggled with an increasingly unhappy marriage.
After her husband’s death in 1905, Juliette Gordon Low felt a great sadness. Her marriage had failed and she had no children. She wondered: if marriage and motherhood weren’t her purpose in life, then what was? On a quest for meaning, she turned to family and friends, to her artwork, and also to adventure—traveling to faraway places like Egypt and India. On her return to London in 1911, a meeting with Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of Boy Scouts, changed the course of her life. What happened next? Read the history of Early Girl Scouting to learn how Juliette found her calling.
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