The Very First Troop Leader

A new biography tells the story of Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts

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. (Courtesy Juliette Gordon Low, Birthplace, Savannah, GA and Girl Scout National Historic Preservation Center, New York, NY)

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That word wasn’t even really used in this country until about the time she founded the scouts. I do not have a single scrap of paper where she self-identifies as a feminist. I know she supported suffrage. Do I think that a broad general definition of feminist today applies to Juliette Low? Yes, I do. Do I think it always applied to her? No. It definitely applied to her as an adult.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, other similar girl scouting groups sprung up. What, culturally speaking, do you think was going on that inspired the need for scouts?

Historians talk about the end of the 19th century and early 20th century as a time of industrialization, immigration and urbanization. American factories were chugging away at a tremendous pace. The 1920 census for the first time told us that more people were living in urban areas than rural areas. People were coming from all over, and we weren’t certain how that was going to work out.

Juliette Low wanted immigrant girls in Girl Scouting. She thought it would help to Americanize them, which can be an ugly thing to think about from the perspective of 2012 but wasn’t seen as a bad thing in 1912. Urbanization also comes into play because these children in cities didn’t have access to fresh air and fresh water and fields to run in and hills to roll down, like Juliette had had when she was a little girl. Girl Scouting picked up on the fresh air movement and the other camping movements of the time and said, let’s get kids out of the city. Girl Scouting and other reforms of the progressive era were an attempt, in part, to mitigate the worst excesses of industrialization, to help immigrants become Americans and succeed here both personally and professionally, and to make sure that we all did this in an atmosphere of friendship and trust.

Some things are impossible to know about Low’s life. What are you most curious about?

That’s the biographer’s question. If you had your subject over to tea, what three questions would you ask her? I would ask her the professional question: How did you feel in 1920 when you voluntarily gave up the presidency of the Girl Scouts? I think that must have been one of the hardest decisions she ever had to make. Then, the personal, gossipy question: What’s the dish about Robert Baden-Powell? I’d like to know whether they were really in love or if they decided they would just make good mates. And, I think the historian’s question I would ask would be, were you aware of all the other reforms and reformers around you? As a historian, that is what really puzzles me. I kept thinking I would see, in her correspondences, letters to prominent reformers of her time, and they just are not there. There is no letter to Florence Kelley. There is no long, thoughtful missive from Jane Addams, saying let’s talk about how you’re working with youth and I’m working with youth. While she was contributing to reforms of the progressive era, she was not connected to the progressive era women we know so well. I just want to know why that connection wasn’t made.

What lessons does her life story impart?

There has got to be some kind of lesson about not letting your worst mistake get the best of you. I think her worst mistake was marrying Willy Low. In her own estimation, her life was in shambles. She had failed to have a successful marriage, and she had failed to produce children. She could have been a bitter old woman sitting on her pots of money. She could have been angry and withdrawn, but somehow she wasn’t. From that rose this dogged, determined, passionate, committed dynamo of a woman who threw herself into girl scouting. She opened doors for girls that were closed to her. I think her story says something about resilience and optimism.


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