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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On part of Low’s land in Savannah by her home, girls could play tennis and basketball. Basketball was a pretty new sport in our country. She strung up this canvas curtain to keep these girls in their skirts with their basketballs away from the eyes of passersby, for fear she would offend some of them. Of course, it made everyone want to know what the heck was going on. I don’t believe she hung up the curtain in order to heighten interest in her organization, but that’s the effect it had. Little kids had to peek through, and it just looked terrifically fun.

What skills did Low want Girl Scouts to learn?

Most women were going to be wives and mothers and she knew that, so, better to train girls to be really exceptional homemakers. She wanted them to learn about cooking and preserving food. She wanted them to know how to run a sterile kitchen. She taught about nursing—taking care of invalids and sick children—and sewing. Anything that a wife and mother should do she thought she could train her girls to do better.

Low understood how it was possible that any woman might find herself in the situation of needing to take care of herself. So, she emphasized career training for girls. Some of the early badges were about flying, typing, telegraph skills and farming.

Then there was this whole path of outdoor activity, which ranged from gardening to camping. Her program taught you how to identify a poisonous mushroom from a nonpoisonous mushroom and how to pitch a tent and which kind of wood was useful to burn in a fire and which kind wasn’t. There was a fear that some of these ideas were beginning to fade.

Then, there was the part of her program that had to do with citizenship. She wanted her girls to know something about the Constitution of the United States, the history of the United States, geography, then particularly as World War I came along, military preparedness, so semaphore, Morse Code and how to prepare for civic emergencies of any kind.

What do those skills say about her idea of a woman’s role in the world?

I think that Juliette Gordon Low, by the time she was 51 years old and had founded the Girl Scouts, understood that a woman’s life was no longer predictable and that you could not count anymore on being a pampered wife and a beloved mother and grandmother. It behooved you as a teacher of young girls to train them for unexpected futures.

All kinds of girls joined scouting—middle-class girls, elite girls, poor girls, factory girls and orphans, from every religious and ethnic background. And, they all joined for different reasons. Girl Scouting was equal parts of fun and education. Juliette Low wanted girls to become better women.

Do you consider her a feminist?


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