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The Best Girl Scout Of The Mall
How Juliette “Daisy” Low, an unwanted child, a miserable wife, a lonely widow, finally found happiness as the founder of the Girl Scouts of America
June/july 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 4
Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys had come out in 1908, and in its wake some six thousand girls had applied to become Scouts. As far as B-P was concerned, they should be taught “home-making and mother-craft.” With the stipulation that they not use the Scout name or so much as greet a uniformed Boy Scout in public, he turned the notion for the Girl Guides over to his sister Agnes.
Daisy latched onto Girl Scouting with such vehemence that Baden-Powell advised her to be moderate until she was sure what she wanted to do. But Daisy had found her salvation. After several meetings with Agnes, Daisy retired to her Scottish estate and recruited seven girls, teaching them to spin, cook, and raise chickens for sale. This whetted her appetite, but Agnes Baden-Powell was firmly in charge of British Girl Guides, and Daisy wanted more latitude. She sailed for America, arriving in Savannah in 1912. Her first night home she called a cousin and announced that she wanted to discuss something “for all the girls of Savannah.and all America and all the world. …”
It was a good thing for Daisy and for Girl Scouts that her ties with Baden-Powell were getting looser, for she constantly disobeyed his mandates. She called her girls Scouts and, contrary to B-P’s wishes, she intended them to enjoy outdoor adventure as much as kitchen instruction. She enrolled the first troop on an old Savannah tennis court. That summer Daisy organized a five-day camping trip for her girls. Everyone slept on the sand, got red clay all over her blue uniform, complained about the mosquitoes, and ate on eleven cents a day. As the weeks passed, Daisy talked about nothing but her Scouts. As her mother put it with characteristic sensitivity, “I don’t give a damn about Girl Scouts. … [but we] are so glad Daisy is sticking to her interest that we want to do everything we can.”
In September of that first Girl Scout summer, Daisy’s father died. This new grief accelerated Daisy’s feverish activity for her cause. She put literally everything she had into her Scouts. She financed the organization for its first four years. She took to wearing a hat decorated with a bunch of parsley and a couple of carrots. In the company of rich friends, she would sadly say she couldn’t afford better trimming because she was sinking everything into the Girl Scouts.
She almost completely stopped making the effort to listen to anyone. She once told her niece that she was the center of attention because, after years of trying to understand what others were saying and finding it not particularly interesting, she decided to take matters into her own hands. (This policy had its drawbacks: one time Daisy decided to applaud loudly a speaker whom she couldn’t hear, but whose audience seemed to Daisy too listless. As it turned out, the speaker was praising Daisy.)
In the Girl Scouts’ formative years Daisy was less responsible for formulating their philosophy than for disseminating it. She wanted to teach the girls leadership, self-control, and executive skills. A first-class Scout was prepared: “almost a grown-up woman, capable of bearing the responsibilities that will come to her in her home and in the community.”
In Daisy s broader hopes, her Scouts served as a modifier or class friction and a force against socialism. Girls, according to the manual, were more class conscious and class bound than boys, and one of the Scout laws in the 1913 edition of How Girls Can Help Their Country was that “a Girl Scout is a Friend to All, and a Sister to Every Other Scout no Matter to what Social Class She May Belong.” Scouting, however, was not intended to break class barriers but rather to make them easier to tolerate. In later years Daisy sent her Scouts out to give “patriotic instruction” to workers in the New Bedford mills, where “foreign labor threatened to fall prey to the epidemic of Bolshevism and industrial unrest.” She subsequently opposed raising membership dues, so that girls from working-class homes could afford to join.
Daisy did not see her Scouts as proto-f eminists. She was not in favor of woman suffrage and, in fact, once wrote a singularly unlyrical poem called Women of Ease in which she instructed women not to “shout for votes,” explaining that their real burden was to train the young. When any question arose that Scouting might impair a girl’s femininity, Daisy’s supporters pointed to her impeccable credentials as a lady. One acquaintance remembered, in an effort to prove that Daisy wasn’t turning America’s females into tomboys or ruffians, that Daisy made “each of us feel that she was the favored guest. The art of intimacy, the fine flower of Southern cordiality, was at its best in her … her ideal of Girl Scouting was developed in a thoroughly feminine atmosphere. ”