Stacy A. Cordery was a Brownie the first time she heard the name Juliette Gordon Low. She was instantly fascinated by the woman, who founded the Girl Scouts in 1912, and by the fact that she was hearing impaired for most of her adult life. “Her deafness made me want to learn sign language, which I attempted as a young girl,” says Cordery, now a historian and professor at Monmouth College in Illinois.
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But, while in high school, and college and graduate school at the University of Texas, Cordery noticed that Low was absent from history textbooks and lectures. “The older I got, the more I thought we don’t know enough about her,” says Cordery. Low’s legacy is monumental: Now celebrating its 100-year history, the Girl Scouts is the largest educational organization for girls in the world, with 3.3 million current members. Over the years, some 50 million women have worn the uniform and earned badges for its sash.
Cordery’s new biography, Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts, pieces together Low’s life story, from her beginnings in Savannah, Georgia, at the outbreak of the Civil War to her establishing the first troop of Girl Scouts in the United States. From diaries, letters, institutional correspondence and photographs, Cordery describes Low’s time as a Georgia debutante, the years she spent in England married to an aristocrat named William Mackay Low, Willy’s adultery and his death during their divorce proceedings, and her discovery of Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides in England.
Why did you want to learn more about Juliette Gordon Low?
Every biographer has some autobiographical connection to his or her subject. For me, it was not just that I was a Brownie, but that my mother was a Girl Scout and my grandmother was a troop leader. My mother always kept her Girl Scout uniform. I still have it. And I thought, what was it about this organization that was so important that my mom kept her Girl Scout uniform in the same box as her wedding dress?
By having access to primary source documents you were privy to Low’s personality a bit. How would you describe it?
She was impetuous like her mother. She was thoughtful like her father. She was more organized than I think people gave her credit for. She loved literature. She was deeply spiritual and at the same time phenomenally superstitious. She had a family commitment to duty.
I think she had the biblical instruction to do good in the world, and she had been doing good in the world in her own way ever since she was putting on plays as a girl and charging admission to send off to missionaries. When she was hanging out with the aristocracy in England, she called herself a “woman of ease.” She simultaneously enjoyed that and felt horribly guilty about it. Willy, her husband, was not a supporter of women’s rights and did not believe that women should be out of the home. Consequently, Juliette Low had to do her good deeds in secret.
After Low led three groups of Girl Guides in the United Kingdom, she formed the first troop of 18 American Girl Guides, as the Girl Scouts were originally called, on March 12, 1912. How were they received?
In the United States, there was not a tremendous backlash against Girl Guides as there was in England. There were complaints, in England, about mannish girls and girls not being peaceful if they were in a uniform that looked like a military uniform. There were concerns about girls being overly athletic or indulging in sports, games or outdoor activities that were not appropriate for their gender. But, in the United States, there were already progressive era movements afoot suggesting that children needed outdoor exercise, to play, to get out of the classroom and to be able to run and be free.