- Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts by Stacy A. Cordery
While it is surprising that someone as famous as Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts of the USA, has never been featured in a scholarly biography, the lack of coverage is understandable. It is never easy to demystify an icon. Millions of American girls have heard of Low, and they may even know small details of her life, but for most, she is an image in a guidebook—merely a famous name. In 2012, the centennial year of the Girl Scouts of the USA, Stacy Cordery has taken the famous image and provided a back story that helps explain how a woman from Savannah, Georgia, was able to export a British youth movement to the United States and make it work.
Cordery’s biography is painstakingly researched and filled with rich detail from the voluminous correspondence that Juliette “Daisy” Low maintained during her lifetime. Cordery focuses primarily on Daisy’s early life in order to explain the circumstances that led her to embark upon the adventure of running a national youth organization. For Cordery, four influences profoundly shaped the person who became Daisy Low, and these four influences form the bulk of her analysis. First, Cordery delves into the rich life of the Gordon family, a tight-knit clan with significant connections in both the North and the South. Daisy’s mother, Nellie Kinzie Gordon, appears to have been a real force of nature, while William Washington Gordon, Daisy’s cotton merchant father, became an important ally for Daisy in her adult life. Her many accomplished siblings helped provide family connections and a support network that Daisy relied upon throughout her life. From Daisy’s earliest years, when her parents survived the strain of the US Civil War that pitted Nellie’s family in Chicago against her husband, a Confederate officer, the Gordons managed to maintain their status and survive the odds.
In addition to the advantages she gained with her family’s wealth and close ties, Daisy was also lucky in her friendships, particularly those with lifelong female friends. This second important influence is something that ties directly [End Page 176] to her later Girl Scout experience because Daisy learned to cultivate and rely upon other women for advice, support, and friendship. The Girl Scouts institutionalized this kind of sex-segregated community for both girls and adults as it developed in the early twentieth century. Such friendship, Cordery argues, was crucial for Daisy when facing the challenges of the two other important influences in her life, namely her deafness and her failed marriage. Throughout her life, Daisy suffered from increasingly poor hearing, often submitting to painful and experimental treatments in order to try to improve her ability to hear. This deafness shaped her personality and her public persona; it was a stumbling block, but never an insuperable obstacle for her throughout her adult life.
Finally, Daisy’s marriage into British society in the person of Willy Low subjected her to shame and despair, but also provided her the means by which she was introduced to the Girl Scouts. Low, a shallow and lazy but charming and handsome man, married Daisy Gordon in the 1880s; by the turn of the century he had deserted her for his lover. For her part, Daisy initiated divorce proceedings, but she never had to finish the legal case because Low died (probably of complications from alcoholism) before the waiting period for the case had finished. Even though this failed marriage was a blow, it was important in establishing a cross-Atlantic existence for Daisy Low, for providing her with a lifetime income, and for introducing her to the founder of Boy Scouting (and Girl Guiding), Robert Baden-Powell. Once she met and befriended Baden-Powell, she became interested in his fledgling youth movement to the extent that she ran Girl Guide companies in Scotland and England. Later, with his encouragement, she brought this experimental youth movement to the United...