Reviewed: Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts
by Stacy A. Cordery
Maenads, suffragettes, sororities, or Brownies—there’s something about organized groups of women that scare men. What on Earth are those girls doing out there in the woods or up in the chapter room, all by themselves? Women unregulated by male authority are at once ridiculed, eroticized, and threatening: Think of the Salem witches, the Tri-Pi’s topless pillow fight in Animal House, or—no kidding—the Girl Scouts. This past spring, an Indiana legislator refused to support a resolution honoring the Girl Scouts on their one hundredth anniversary, charging that they are pro-abortion Planned Parenthood apparatchiks whose role models are “feminists, lesbians, or Communists.” Worse, no doubt, is the fact that the Scouts’ honorary president is Michelle Obama.
Had Rep. Bob Morris read Stacy A. Cordery’s informative, if somewhat ineptly executed, new biography of Girl Scouts of the United States of America founder Juliette Gordon Low, he might have postponed his hissy fit. At least, he’d learn that every First Lady since Edith Bolling Wilson in 1917 has been an honorary president of the GSUSA. And that women of every ideological stripe have been members, along with Gloria Steinem, Condoleezza Rice, Dakota Fanning, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, astronaut Sally Ride, and Sheryl Crow. “The Girl Scouts is where I became acquainted with the idea that a woman can do anything,” wrote the journalist Lisa Ling, in Leader magazine.
Founded one hundred years ago, the organization now boasts 3.2 million members. The woman responsible for empowering so many dames was an unlikely revolutionary—a Southern aristocrat, raised in the cult of ladyhood.
Born in 1860, Juliette Magill Kinzie Gordon, or “Daisy,” as she was called, had a privileged upbringing which Cordery presents in Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts, in perhaps excessive detail. Her father, William Washington Gordon II, was a Yale graduate and successful Savannah cotton broker. Her mother was Eleanor Kinzie Gordon, the spoiled only daughter of Chicago’s founding family, a cultivated woman who, Cordery tells us, could nevertheless swear in several languages. The Gordons and their kin embodied the national split: William Gordon fought for the Confederacy; Eleanor Gordon’s brother and uncle were Union officers, and her cousin was president of one of the Union’s largest arms manufacturers. Eleanor scandalized Savannah’s partisan ladies (as well as her husband) when she entertained Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman to tea.
Unlike many white Southerners, the Gordons did not lose everything in the war. Daisy and her sisters went to finishing school in New York and traveled to Europe. Educated and polished to a high gloss, they were supposed to find suitable husbands and settle down to a life of dinner parties, servants, and children. Right on schedule, Daisy fell in love with William Low, the Scots-American son of a millionaire who was handsome, charming, and devoted to a bon vivant’s life on both sides of the Atlantic. Their marriage in 1886 began inauspiciously, and painfully, when a piece of rice thrown at the wedding lodged in Daisy’s ear. The chronic infection she suffered was nothing short of a metaphor for their relationship. Willy Low was what Victorians called a cad. As Cordery says, “Willy was thought to have consorted with society women whose upbringings had not been as sheltered as Daisy’s and whose permissive ethics would have shocked her.”
Daisy eventually figured out that Willy Low was fooling around with Anna Bridges Bateman, a beauty out of a pre-Raphaelite painting who ran with the urbane “smart set.” When Willy Low moved his mistress into their country house, Daisy ended her complacence. They agreed to divorce but he died before it could take place. In a posthumous insult, he left his huge fortune to Anna, the home-wrecking doxy.
What, you may ask, does all this have to do with archery badges and Thin Mints? Well, if Daisy Low’s marriage had been happy, if there had been children, or if Willy hadn’t been such a complete loser, chances are she’d never have gotten around to founding the Girl Scouts. I assume this is why Cordery devotes so much space to Daisy Low’s pre-Scouts life. It’s entertaining, in a Downton Abbey-meets-People magazine sort of way, but a little goes a long way as does being family-tree-obsessed, trapped in a corner with a monologuing great-aunt. Do we really need potted biographies of Daisy’s dancing teacher, or another reiteration of the well-known history of how James Oglethorpe founded Savannah in 1733? Moreover, Cordery’s style is often graceless. She could have used a proofreader and a good editor. On page thirty-six, we are assured that the Gordons had put the “depravation” of the Civil War years behind them. I puzzled over this: they didn’t strike me as particularly immoral or corrupt. Surely Cordery meant“deprivation”? On page 111, Cordery informs us that in the 1890s fox hunting was a masculine culture; women were to look on approvingly from a “distance,” which would be news to the Duchess of Newcastle, Lady Theodora Guest, and all the other ladies who rode to hounds. Two pages later, Cordery writes about—you guessed it—women fox hunting.
How the Girl Scouts of the United States of America came to be is a good story, and when Cordery finally gets around to it on page 181, the book becomes livelier, with anecdotes about Daisy Low flying in a Farman biplane over Manhattan, dropping Girl Scout pamphlets on Fifth Avenue or arriving late at a grand Savannah dinner with a strip of leather in her hands, “absorbedly practicing knot tying.”
The genesis story of the Scouts goes like this: In 1911, Daisy Low, widowed, well-off, living in England and looking for “some way to channel her energy and marshal her urge to do good,” met Sir Robert Baden-Powell, the Boer War hero and muscular Christian who had organized the Boy Scouts in 1907. Having defied her husband in 1899, by volunteering at a club for working-class children in South London, she now decided she wanted to help girls of every kind. In 1911, she wrote to her father back in Savannah:
When Baden-Powell first formed the Boy Scouts, six thousand girls tried to register as Scouts! And as he could not have girls traipsing about the country after his Boy Scouts, he got his sister to form a society of Girl Guides and the first law was that they must not even speak to a Boy Scout if they saw him in uniform.
At this time she was her late forties, somewhat deaf, struggling with her health, and crushed-out on Baden-Powell. Cordery speculates that Baden-Powell may even have discussed marriage with her. But in 1912, he married Olave St. Clair Soames, a woman thirty-two years his junior. Disappointed but determined to make her mark on her country by creating an Americanized version of the Girl Guides, young women who would be as comfortable in the forest as they were in the home, Daisy sailed back to Georgia. In Savannah, she called her cousin Nina Anderson Pape, founder of a progressive school, and said “Come right over...I’ve got something for the girls of Savannah and all America, and we’re going to start it tonight!” She insisted on calling her girls “scouts,” asserting equality with their male counterparts. Boy Scouts of America Executive Director James West was appalled, complaining that her appropriation of the scouting name “sissified” the brand, but we know she stood firm.
The Girl Scouts weren’t the only club for young girls founded in the early years of the twentieth century. In one of her best sections, Cordery contrasts them with their contemporaries, the Camp Fire Girls, who (in cahoots with the more conservative Boy Scouts) were committed to strict gender and class roles. The Camp Fire Girls declared their allegiance to a “home-based domesticity,” emphasizing “homely, wholesome activities” which never intruded into the masculine sphere. Daisy Low suggested that the Camp Fire Girls, who tended to be upper middle-class, disband and join her more democratically-inclined Girl Scouts with their mix of “society girls” and “factory girls.” The Camp Fire Girls declined.
Daisy Low did not cast herself as a feminist. Yet her insistence that girls could become more than domestic drudges or drawing room ornaments, her conviction that girls should learn woodcraft, rowing, and survival skills, even her endorsement of basketball as a “suitable” sport, helped expand the thinking of girls, no matter if they came from mills or mansions. The scouting movement was progressive in many ways: Girl Guides promised to be “a friend to all, and a Sister to every other Guide, no matter to what Social Class the other belongs.” In this First Wave in history, when women were not only demanding their civic rights but also partaking of higher education, founding service clubs, secret societies, and college sororities, Daisy Low was a pioneer.
But Daisy Low had been raised in a slaveholding family and lived in the Jim Crow South. So scout troops were segregated since, as Cordery says, “white parents would object to gatherings like Rallies, being integrated, because black youngsters ‘can and do corrupt other children.’”
Presumably, that comment about black kids corrupting white kids comes from Low, but Cordery doesn’t examine it, relate it to Low’s upbringing, or do anything but note that Robert Baden-Powell had refused to allow black troops in South Africa. Cordery also fails to explain how the Girl Scouts would go on later to practice tolerance when the rest of the country was divided on racial and class grounds. In 1956, when a mixed-race troop was started in Kentucky, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called the Girl Scouts a “force for desegregation.” Unlike the Boy Scouts, GSUSA has always been more politically forward and less overtly “Christian.” The GSUSA even named an African-American president in 1975. But to find out how the Girl Scouts’ increasingly progressive national officers, including the likes of Civil Rights leader Dr. Dorothy Ferebee, named GSUSA Vice President in 1969, helped them push for integration, the reader must look to other sources such as current Girl Scouts CEO Kathy Cloninger’s book Tough Cookies: Leadership Lessons from 100 Years of the Girl Scouts or the GSUSA’s 2007 publication “The Architecture of Inclusion.”
Though Cordery’s biography doesn’t pursue Low’s life to particularly interesting conclusions, it reminds us of how central the Girl Scouts—and Juliette Gordon Low—have long been in the American mind. Liberating girls from 24/7 domesticity and turning them loose outdoors was a radical advance for women, an Emersonian experiment in inner strength and individual will. As Emerson said, “Do your work and I shall know you.” At the same time, scouting deepens one's trust in others, and emphasizes cooperation authority through merit rather than birth. Low may have been a product of her class and her race and even her gender, but with the Scouts she was also, wittingly or not, doing much to undermine those very hierarchies.
All photos from Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts by Stacy A. Cordery.