Low, Juliette Gordon

Best known as the founder of Girl Scouts of the USA, Juliette Gordon Low outgrew the trappings of an upper-class society life to create an organization for young women that integrated leadership, equality for all, self-confidence, responsibility, integrity, decision-making, teamwork, outdoor skills, and philanthropy. Girl Scouts of the USA continues, today, to enable girls to grow into responsible, caring, independent citizens.

Biographical Highlights

Best known as the founder of Girl Scouts of the USA, Juliette Gordon Low outgrew the trappings of an upper-class society life to create an organization for young women that integrated leadership, equality for all, self-confidence, responsibility, integrity, decision-making, teamwork, outdoor skills, and philanthropy. Low. Girl Scouts of the USA continues, today, to enable girls to grow into responsible, caring, independent citizens.


Historic Roots

Juliette Magill Kinzie Gordon (1860-1927) was born in Savannah, Georgia to a prominent southern family on October 31, 1860. She was known to her family and close friends as "Daisy." Her father was a Confederate Captain in the Civil War who, after the War, joined a volunteer militia. She was educated in boarding schools where she excelled in art and showed great interest in animals. At the age of twenty-five, Juliette was treated with silver nitrate for an ear infection, which caused significant hearing damage. Her other ear became infected when rice, tossed at her wedding, became lodged causing total hearing loss. Nevertheless, she persevered and did not let her disability stop her from attaining her goals.

In 1886, Low married William Mackay Low, a British heir. The couple spent most of their years together in England. Eventually, William drank heavily and, while in the process of seeking a divorce from Juliette, he died. William left most of his estate to his mistress. A very upset Low spent many years traveling Europe until she met Lord Robert Baden-Powell in 1911. He introduced her to his Boy Scout movement and she was mesmerized by the self-discipline, service, and honor promoted as expected values in the boys. Though he allowed his sister to lead a few troops of Girl Guides, Baden-Powell did not believe girls were capable of leadership and outdoor life (Georgia Women of Achievement 2002).

Soon after, Low began a movement for young women in England and Scotland. Eventually, she moved home to Georgia and began the first organized Girl Guides troop in the United States. The Guides modeled itself after the British Girl Guides by borrowing their uniform, handbook and ideas.

Finally, after Low devoted many years to the movement, it was incorporated in 1915 as Girl Scouts. She became the first president and was, eventually, titled its founder. She continued her vision by eliciting support, working on expansion projects and, in 1919, she wrote the Girl Scout handbook, How Girls Can Help Their Country. The movement continued to grow.

The woman known for being charming and eccentric was diagnosed with cancer in 1923. She kept this a secret as she pursued her vision for Girl Scouts. On January 17, 1927, Juliette Gordon Low died of cancer, leaving behind a significant organization of nearly 167,000 young women.

During a time when women were training to be housewives and mothers, Low was teaching the importance of independent living, service to others and preparation for careers. She was able to break down the wall that restricted women and taught girls how to succeed at any endeavor. These ideals, promoted at the time of World War I, have continued to be important for girls and are taught to the estimated fifty million members worldwide who have served as Girl Scouts.


Importance

Low started an organization for all girls regardless of race, religion, economic status and ability during a time when such a movement was not a mainstream or acceptable concept. She sought to educate young women on leadership, assistance to others, survival skills, and independence, through an organization that parallels the Boy Scouts. Through her vision, she created an important movement that embraced women's roles while expanding gender definitions.


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Low put much of her energy and personal wealth into making the Girl Scouts a success. Her hard work fundraising and increasing public awareness of her organization succeeded as the movement grew and grew throughout and beyond her lifetime. Today, the philanthropic success of Girl Scouts lies in the hands of the young female members who participate in fundraising and product sales (such as Girl Scout cookie sales) to support their organization. Yet, fundraising skills are not the only philanthropic goal of the Girl Scouts, girls are taught the importance of helping others at all times.

Low's legacy has caused the creation of a fund in her name and with her vision for helping others. The Juliette Low World Friendship Fund helps support Girl Scout programs and fosters relationships internationally among Scouts. The fund also supports special projects to fight illiteracy, hunger and disease and sends aid to Girl Scouts affected by natural disasters.

Inspired by or building upon the example of Girl Scouts of the USA, many other nonprofits arose to address the developmental needs and interests of girls and young women. The most dominant of these are Girls Incorporated and YWCA.

Key Related Ideas

  • Civic engagement

  • Developmental needs of girls

  • Leadership

  • Outdoor skills

  • Service to others

Low played an important part in teaching young women the meaning of civic engagement, service and leadership. She was able to install the significance of civic obligations to one's country in youth so that they would grow up to be engaged leaders, creating productive members of society. Through the Girls Scouts movement, girls learned traditional female values, like service to others. Yet, they were also taught skills which society viewed as male-engendered, such as outdoor skills and leadership abilities. Taking into account their full capabilities, yet respecting the developmental needs of girls is a key to the success of Girl Scouts and other female-specific organizations, such as Girls Inc.


Important People Related to the Topic

Lord Robert Baden-Powell (1857-1941) was the founder of the Boy Scout movement and was the inspiration for Low to start the Girl Scouts. Baden-Powell and Low met through their mutual interest in art. He was a popular war hero and author of many magazine articles. Since his death, many books have been written about him, his travels and about his contribution to the Scouting movement.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

Many organizations have been charged with the mission to help both young women and men become strong, smart, productive members of society. Like the Girl Scouts of the USA, they develop programs and services that promote competence, usefulness and strong character while providing youth a safe place in which to participate. Examples of these organizations are Girls Inc., Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Boy Scouts of America, and 4-H.

In 2000, the Girl Scout Research Institute was developed to look at public policy and healthy development of girls. It is the goal of the center to ensure that the needs of young women in Girl Scouts are being addressed and met through programming as well as supplying accurate information to educational, nonprofit and public policy organizations. Some Institute publications include The Net Effect: Girls and New Media (2000), Snapshots of Young Lives Today (2001), and Teens Before Their Time (2000).


Related Web Sites

Boys & Girls Club of America provides online information, at https://www.bgca.org/, about programs, organizational history, and membership.

The Girl Scout Research Institute portion of the Girl Scouts Web site provides information on research related to the development of young women. Available at https://www.girlscouts.org/en/about-girl-scouts/research.html.

The Girls Inc. Web site provides information on the organization's mission, history, programs, goals, and membership (see http://www.girlsinc.org/). The mission of Girls Inc. is to inspire "all girls to be strong, smart and bold" by providing educational programs, conducting and disseminating research on the healthy development of girls, and advocating for girls' rights.

The National 4-H Council Web site, at https://4-h.org/, contains information on its many programs, history about the organization and its connections to the land-grant universities' extension offices which sponsor local 4-H groups.


Bibliography and Internet Sources

Georgia Women of Achievement. Juliette Gordon Low, 1860-1927. [cited 28 October 2002]. Available from http://www.gawomen.org/.

Girl Scouts of the USA. [cited 28 October 2002]. Available from http://www.girlscouts.org.

National Women's Hall of Fame. Women of the Hall: Juliette Gordon Low. [cited 28 October 2002]. Available from https://www.womenofthehall.org/?action=viewone&id=100.

Robert Baden-Powell. Founder of the World Scout Movement, Chief Scout of the World. [cited 1 December 2002]. Available from https://www.pinetreeweb.com/.

Shultz, Gladys Denny, and Daisy Gordon Lawrence. Lady From Savannah, The Life of Juliette Low. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1958.

Young, Noraleen Ann. The Girl Scout of Today, The Woman of Tomorrow: Girl Scouting in Central Indiana. Indiana University: Masters Thesis, 1992.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.