[X] CLOSE
Nellie Gordon, Juliette's mother.Juliette's father, Brigadier General in the Spanish-American War.Juliette, seated, front row left; Billow is second from left, standing.

Getting to know Juliette Gordon Low

'She was quicksilver and pepper—the whole leavened with humanity and laughter.'
—Eleanor Arnette Nash

Juliette and her five siblings were born in Savannah, Georgia, and raised by parents who had a romance that was famous in that city.

Juliette's mother, Nellie, was a Northerner, an artist and early proponent of the Arts and Crafts Movement. High spirited, she is remembered as much for organizing medical care for returning veterans of the Spanish-American War as for sliding down the elegantly curved banister of the house at the age of 81.

Juliette's father, Willie, a graduate of Yale, son of a prominent, well-connected Georgia family, served as a captain in the Confederacy and later as U.S. General and peace negotiator. Daisy, as Juliette was called, was born on the eve of the Civil War, October 31, 1860.

Juliette was a talented child, with a creative temperament. Sheltered from the harshness of the war and Reconstruction, she was educated at boarding schools in Virginia and New York, and spent her summers in fashionable resorts. As a young woman, Juliette had many suitors. Then, in her early twenties, naively romantic, inexperienced in relationships, she fell hopelessly in love with the dashing, but aimless son of a wealthy English shipping magnate who was living in Savannah.

Marrying against her family's wishes, she returned to England with him, where the couple lived a storybook life—at least at first—socializing with the royalty, in London for the "season," going on shooting and fishing parties in Scotland; she once went duck hunting with Rudyard Kipling.

But Daisy was not so lucky in love as her parents. Despite her efforts to save it, the marriage fell apart within a few years. By 1905, before their divorce made its way through the courts, William ("Billow") Low was dead.

Juliette, right, with her sisters Mabel, left, and Eleanor. The inscription is "Behold ye Beauty! One in three…You Faithe, You Hope, You Charity."

Despairing, on her own, and struggling with a severe hearing disability, she wondered what to do with what she called her "wasted life, which brought forth nothing but leaves." She threw herself into art, and studied sculpture in Paris; inwardly, she felt herself to be a failure at the only career that really mattered to women of her time, marriage and motherhood.

Then, while searching for a new sculpture teacher in London, she met an English officer, Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts. An older man, a soldier like her father, and a lover of art, the magnetic Baden-Powell made an instant impression. In her diary Juliette confided, "He has ideas, which if I followed them, a more useful sphere of work might open before me in the future." With a paternal nudge, Baden-Powell urged her to work with his sister Agnes to create a counterpart to the Boy Scouts for girls. Juliette took his advice.

Juliette talking with the American delegation to a 1924 world camp in England: Daisy Gordon Lawrence, the first Girl Scout, is second from left in the group.

In 1912, after organizing troops in Scotland and London, Juliette returned to Savannah specifically to bring Girl Guiding to the United States, and made the famous phone call to her niece, Nina Pape, that changed history. "Come right over!" she said. "I have something for all the girls of Savannah, and all America, and all the world, and we're going to start it tonight." At first her relatives were skeptical of this, the latest adventure of their eccentric, and now middle-aged family member, referring to it as "Girl Scoots."

But this was no momentary enthusiasm. From the very beginning, Juliette was driven by a far-reaching vision of expanding what was possible for girls, all girls. She enrolled girls then on the fringes of society, black girls, Jewish girls, orphans, and seeing how much richer it made their experience, mixed girls from one economic class with those of another. It would become an important part of her legacy: well before racial barriers began to fall in the South, in 1956, Martin Luther King Jr. called Girl Scouts "a force for desegregation."

The library at the Birthplace, with a copy of the 1887 Edward Hughes portrait of Juliette at 27, shortly after her marriage to William M. Low ("Billow").

According to her nephew Arthur, she was quirky, with a "very determined chin" and a well developed sense of humor. More charismatic than organized, it was said she could turn the simplest event, like going to the market, into an adventure worthy of the Arabian Nights. Arthur remembered her as "either roaring with laughter, often self-directed," or indignant "about some injustice to man or beast." He recalled her habit of "telling fortunes for me and my fascinated friends by reading our grubby palms." And if things got truly dull, you might find her "standing statuesquely on her venerable head, with her skirts held firmly between her legs." On fishing outings, wearing an enormous floppy hat and several thick veils against the sun and mosquitoes, she insisted Arthur bring along a hammer to rap the fish on the head as soon as they were caught, "to keep them from suffering." One year, she insisted that the turkey destined for the Thanksgiving Day table be chloroformed to spare it the pain of decapitation—a method of execution that backfired when the startled cook, retrieving the bird from the ice house the next day, found it very much alive. She was mischievous and was known to use her deafness to her advantage: when people declined to volunteer for some responsibility, she would sometimes thank them for generously accepting.

Juliette with girls in Savannah in the early days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Juliette Gordon Low was, by all accounts, a complex figure, part Northern progressive, part Southern lady, and presciently modern—on her own, pursuing a career, refusing to be marginalized by a disability. Juliette died much too soon of cancer, January 17, 1927.

A favorite portrait of Juliette, reminiscent of her selling pearls to keep the young Girl Scout Movement going. (Pearls in the photo are not known to be the ones she sold.)
spacer

Juliette: In Her Own Words

It is of paramount importance to teach the young citizen to assume responsibility for her own development and health.

Badges mean nothing in themselves, but they mark a certain achievement, and they are a link between the rich and the poor. For when one girl sees a badge on a sister Scout's arm, if that girl has won the same badge, it at once awakens an interest and sympathy between them.

Juliette hired a pilot in 1917 to take her on her first plane ride.

Every time you show your courage, it grows.

Welcome obstacles, as it is only by meeting with difficulties that you can know how to overcome them…

To put yourself in another's place requires real imagination, but by so doing each Girl Scout will be able to live among others happily. . . . I hope that during the coming year we shall all remember the rules of this Girl Scouting game of ours. They are: To play fair. To play in your place. To play for your side and not for yourself. And as for the score, the best thing in a game is the fun and not the result. . . .”

Sun and air are life giving.

Blessed are the eyes whose clearer view
Can read the wisdom of the whole,
The deeper meaning of the soul,
The Love Eternal old or new!

Juliette coaxing a little bird.It is in the open, where they learn woodcraft and nature lore, that a girl gets the best opportunity to understand life in a sound and wholesome way.

Do well your part today. The work of today is the history of tomorrow, and we are its makers.

Scouting is the cradle of careers. It is where careers are born.

Simple living in the spirit of this law is more important than being able to state the law and talk glibly about it.

Fresh air is your great friend.

Do not think only of the National standpoint, but hold to the International…the youth of the world should have standards and ideals in common.

Whatever you take up, do it with all your might….

Girl Scouts, I salute you.


Adapted from LEADER, Spring 2006. © Girl Scouts of the United States of America.