Today is the Third Annual Blog for International Women’s Day, and this year’s theme is “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures.” Who better to celebrate than the woman who has impacted the lives of 50 million girls (and counting) over the last hundred years?
No one living among Savannah, Georgia’s elite class could have known that one of their own ladies would one day grow up to found an organization for girls that, a century later, would boast a membership of over two million active participants. As the daughter of an elite Chicagoan mother and Confederate soldier father, Juliette Gordon Low–Daisy, as she was lovingly referred to–was a true Southern belle; the thought of her becoming anything other than a well-kept wife would have been unthinkable. Yet the loss of her hearing as a young woman and the crumbling of a prolonged bad marriage would effectively change the already-mischievous Daisy’s life, feeding into her air of eccentricity and allowing her to create a philanthropic outlet beyond her wildest dreams.
At first glance, Daisy made an unlikely candidate for the future founder of such a large organization. She went to boarding schools, studied art in New York, and was well-traveled; she grew up in Savannah under her conservative parents’ watchful eyes, frequently visited her wealthy relatives in Chicago, and made several cross-Atlantic journeys to see friends in Europe. When she was of age, she fell madly in love with a wealthy aristocrat whom her parents detested because of his questionable reputation and his drinking and gambling proclivities. Though her father grudgingly relented, his fears were eventually confirmed.
Daisy’s early years of marriage seemed alright; Daisy and her husband settled down in England and were loved by their community for their philanthropy. Behind the scenes, life wasn’t as smooth as it seemed. Daisy had always had problems with her ears, and on the day of her wedding, a grain of rice went inside one of her ears and caused considerable pain. Doctors’ attempts to dislodge is resulted in the loss of much of her hearing, and the pain she would suffer for the rest of her life may have been more than her philandering husband (who hung out with people–albeit very elite people, such as Queen Elizabeth’s father, Bertie–with bad reputations) had bargained for. Daisy was devastated to learn that he’d been having an affair behind her back. Since he had no intention of ending that relationship, she found herself caught making an extremely difficult decision: look the other way and accept it, or file for divorce. As a woman of impeccable principal, she did something rare at the time and heartbrokenly chose divorce.
In the years after her marriage disintegrated, Daisy was lost and looking for something that would give her life purpose. She was childless, partially deaf, and middle-aged, but though she might have had a few suitors, she wanted something more out of life. Despite her health problems, she loved to travel to places like India and Egypt and meet new people. One of the people she met was the well-connected (and well-known) Robert Baden-Powell, the beloved British general who established the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides in England. Finally, Daisy knew what she wanted to do with her life: she knew she could establish the female equivalent of the Boy Scouts in the United States.
Getting the organization off the ground wasn’t without its hardships: she knew she could convince girls to join, but she wanted the organization to be open to everyone. Though the Girl Scouts started off among the elite classes (Daisy had to start somewhere, and she did so with funding in mind), she was determined to include working class girls as well; she tried to do so in a way that would not scare off upper class mothers from allowing their daughters to associate with the poorer girls.
Then there was the delicate subject of race: Daisy was based in Savannah, and had lived through the Civil War. However, she believed that all girls should be given the opportunity to participate in the Girl Scouts. Once the Girl Scouts began gaining in popularity, Daisy went against the grain and supported the inclusion of African American Girl Scout troops (though, aware of the dissent among financial supporters, she didn’t openly declare this support). Still, within her lifetime, there would even be Mexican American and Native American Girl Scout troops. She was well aware of the changing times and aware of the positive impact that the Girl Scouts could have on girls’ lives (which leads me to believe,were she alive in today’s political climate, she would probably have been supportive of the recent induction of a transgender Girl Scout in Colorado).
One of the most interesting things I learned from the book what a fine line the Girl Scouts had to walk regarding gender roles. Even their name–Girl Scouts–caused an uproar at first: they were copying the Boy Scouts, so they were masculinizing girls! And since girls could do things that Boy Scouts could do, they were feminizing boys’ roles! Though the girls were taught self sufficiency, great pains were taken to assure the public that Girl Scouts would remain proper young women.
There’s so much more to this book that can’t be fit in a book review, but suffice it to say, I absolutely loved it. Cordery’s writing is lively, and Daisy Low’s life was just meant to be talked about–she had so many incredible experiences and seems like a fun person to have known. If you were a Girl Scout, this book is a must-read. Even if you weren’t (I wasn’t), the book is fascinating nonetheless.
Stacy A. Cordery’s biography, Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts, coincides with the centennial anniversary of the founding of the Girl Scouts. The book was released on February 16, 2012 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Group.