June/july 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 4
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
In 1911 Juliette “Daisy” Low taught her first seven female Girl Guides to raise chickens and to spin wool. Now their 2,500,000 descendants, called Scouts, can learn to change the washer on a faucet, rewire a lamp, style hair, take a photograph, clean and set the gap on a lawn-mower spark plug, or recaulk a window. They learn to “relate to others,” participate in groups in a “personalized way,” and “work through tensions.” Gone is the loyal, honorable, obedient, thrifty, pure, courteous friend to all and to animals. She has been replaced by an honest, fair, helpful when needed, cheerful, friendly, considerate, wise user of resources, protector and improver of the world, and respecter of herself and others. Today she wears green polyester instead of blue cotton. But some things never change, and a Girl Scout is as prepared today as she was seventy years ago.
Daisy Low never felt prepared for anything—not for the elegant Savannah society into which she was born, not for the Civil War, which rocked her family, not for her disastrous marriage, and not for her volcanic mother, the stimulating, egocentric, and melodramatic Eleanor Kinzie Gordon.
Daisy, the second of her six children, was a disappointment on two counts: first that she was a girl and second that she was born at all. Eleanor hated being pregnant, hated children, and constantly announced her preference for her husband over her offspring. Apparently something of a child herself, she was impatient and competitive with her children and had little time for their complaints and problems. Daisy learned early to hide what troubled her; to manifest independence and maturity long before she felt them—indeed, in certain respects, she never felt either. Temperamentally Daisy was quite like her demanding mother. She never took no for an answer and had little patience with other peoples foibles but expected much tolerance for her own. And like her mother, her chief object of devotion was her father. William Washington Gordon was an honorable, loyal, dutiful man, a wealthy cotton broker who took public service seriously. He left his new bride in 1861 to fight for the Confederacy (“On his part, he didn’t care a fig what I wanted,” Eleanor wrote. “He took the usual ‘Gordon’ ground of duty”), served in the Georgia legislature after the war, and later acted as commissioner of Puerto Rico. Through it all he remained permanently fascinated and scandalized by his Yankee wife.
The Civil War was a difficult time for all the Gordons. Eleanor came from a pioneer Chicago family, and two of her brothers died fighting for the Union. Her husband tried to understand her personal loyalties, but it was hard for a man deeply attached to an impersonal one. In Savannah, Eleanor compounded her disloyalty to her husband by entertaining General Sherman in her home during his infamous progress through Georgia. Daisy, in the middle of things, as usual, is said to have sat on Sherman’s lap. Daisy’s first glimpse of marriage was of conflict between her father’s duty and discipline and her mother’s caprice and emotionalism.
Perhaps because her mother was so lacking in compassion, Daisy had a quick and unusual sensitivity to suffering. She saved stray animals, slept with her dolls to warm their cold china bodies, took her best blanket to cover the cow, and organized a society called the Helpful Hands to make clothes for poor children. (Since she couldn’t sew, her brothers renamed her group the Helpless Hands.)
Daisy was a lovely, tiny girl with huge, dark eyes and long, dark hair, but her mother said she was “as ugly as ten bears.” Thus Daisy considered herself unattractive and felt ill at ease in mixed company. But the society of girls was a positive delight to her. She wrote her parents at the end of a school year: “All the girls have gone, and as I look back on it I wonder how any mortal could manage to squeeze so much pleasure in so short a space of time. I can hardly realize that I will never see some of the girls again. School girl love is called silly, but I feel that in all my after life, I can never love as warmly and purely as I do now. ” The upshot of Daisy’s confusions was, not surprisingly, a bad marriage. William Mackay Low, the only son of a wealthy cotton merchant, was immature and unstable; his main interests were horses and, late in life, drinking. Daisy met him in England at his father’s home. Her father cautioned her not to take up with Willy, but despite his warning the two announced their engagement.
Daisy chose her parents’ anniversary, December 21,1886, as her wedding day. Just after the marriage ceremony she caught a grain of celebratory rice in her ear. She spent her honeymoon in pain and emerged totally deaf in that ear. She had thought—and hoped—before her wedding that they would remain in her home city, but before long it became clear that Willy, whose father had died shortly before the wedding, would have to move to England to manage the family estate.
There Daisy worked hard to charm Willy’s friends: she rode to the hounds, gave parties, paid calls. But she wasn t happy, and she felt isolated and increasingly neglected. Willy traveled all over the world, almost always alone. Daisy began to have mysterious stomach pains. The doctors told her she must give up hunting, one of the only activities she and Willy had in common. She took up painting, poetry, and sculpture, forged a huge pair of gates for her home, and collected throngs of miniature dogs and encouraged them to sleep on her bed. Her biographer Glady Denny Schultz speculates that she also had a miscarriage. In any case, she had no children, a signal failure in her own eyes.
After years of private misery Willy finally made Daisy’s unhappiness public by taking a mistress. He met Mrs. Bateman, a beautiful widow, in 1895, and eventually moved her into his and Daisy’s house, forcing his wife into a distant wing. “Happiness is not the sum total of life,” Daisy wrote her sister. “I am beginning to believe there is almost as much satisfaction in bearing pain bravely, as one grows older.”
This opened a series of sordid negotiations that continued for five years and might have gone on for a decade had not Willy suddenly died. He left his enormous fortune to Mrs. Bateman with the provision that she pay Daisy twenty-five hundred pounds a year. Even Willy’s lawyer urged Daisy to contest the will. She did and came away with a settlement of $500,000 and all of Willy’s valuable properties.
At forty-six Miss Low, as she had begun calling herself, faced the deadly combination of great freedom and no direction. She traveled like a possessed woman, back and forth across the Atlantic and all over the Continent. She was morbidly sensitive, full of self-disgust and restlessness.
It was in this state that Daisy met Sir Robert Baden-Powell, hero of the Boer War, veteran of India and West Africa, author of many books, and Chief Scout of the British Empire. If ne’er-do-well Willy Low had an opposite, it was the honorable, loyal, and dutiful B-P, as Daisy came to call him. “I appeal to the British spirit already ingrained in you of ‘playing the game,’ ” he once wrote to a friend, “that is, of doing your duty just as thoroughly when you are away from the eye of authority as when under it—not from fear of punishment for neglect to do it, but simply because it is ‘the game’ and is expected of you as a man of honor.” Such was the assumption of the value of discipline, on which B-P founded the Boy Scouts.
B-P was unmarried when, at fifty-four, he met Daisy. His plan of operations for handling women was to tell them right away that he was not going to ask them to marry him but that he would be glad, as a friend, to help them in any way he could. “That’s what I do and the matter being thus defined the girl confides in you and you have much better fun. ” To his mother he wrote that he wouldn’t marry till he was a major, “and then it will be a £50,000 girl at home.”
If B-P was considerably beyond majordom when he met Daisy in May, 1911, she was no girl from home either. At fifty she had a lined face with hooded eyes, a straight mouth, and a long, beakish nose. She was a solid, handsome woman, extremely hard of hearing, and somewhat overwhelmingly vivacious in compensation.
Daisy took to B-P with daunting enthusiasm. Like Daisy he was interested in theater and sculpture. But Daisy, who considered herself a failure in the dark jungles of conjugal love, was most thrilled by his uncomplicated and uncompromising vision of life. She invited him everywhere. She teased him about the future Mrs. Baden-Powell. She wrote him letters faster than he, a most punctilious letter-answerer, could reply. She read his palm. The lines, she recorded, “are very odd and contradictory. The impression he makes on one is equally contradictory. All of his portraits and all of his writings represent him in action, essentially a man of war, though never has any human given me such a feeling of peace. He rushes from one engagement to another, though he doesn’t strike me as restless or pushed or driven. It may be because in his own mind he is not personally seeking anything. His activities are for mankind and he has, perhaps, eliminated the effort to attain things for himself. To him his own life, as a saint, is apparently unimportant. ”
Daisy assumed that Baden-Powell was secretly miserable, but he gently resisted her interpretation. Finally seeing that, unlike Willy, B-P didn’t need her sympathy, Daisy concentrated on his spiritual meaning for her own life. “Today in the few moments I have had to myself, my mind has irresistibly dwelt on B-P. A sort of intuition comes over me that he believes I might make more out of my life, and that he has ideas, which if I follow them will open a more useful sphere of work before me in the future.”
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. ”
Quickly the movie becomes a thriller. A girl gets a message while on maneuvers that her mother is sick. She runs ten paces, walks ten paces (Scout style), fords a river, and makes it safely to the train depot. There she finds the station master robbed and wounded. With Girl Scout first aid she brings him around, and with Morse Code learned from Girl Scouts she informs the next station of her plight. When asked who she is, she allows herself a small Lone Ranger smile and taps out, “I am just a Girl Scout.” The last scene seems rather like a sop to those who found the first half suggestive of too much adventure for girls. A group of girls marches into the house of a woman who works in a factory and whose husband is a soldier. The house and yard are a mess, the baby is dirty, and the older daughter is sick. The Scouts visit relentless cleanliness on house, yard, baby, and patient. The subtitle explains, “Housework is not so bad when you do it for your country.” At this point the only man in the film makes his appearance to compliment his wife and the Scouts on his spotless house and family. The girls give the soldier a stiff salute and march out discreetly.
scarves, badges, bars, shoes, stockings, and materials. Typical of her deep concern with details of dress is a letter written in 1916 about a decoration to be worn “over the heart, and the cords looped up to a point left of shoulder & pinned on top of left shoulder twisted so that the ends hang within the circle of cords thus,” and there follows a complicated illustration of the cord properly tied. As the film maker Josephine Daskam Bacon noted perceptively after working with Daisy on the first Girl Scout movie, “It suddenly dawned on me that she loved that big hat; she loved that ridiculous whistle; she loved her whole uniform! She wasn’t wearing them, as some of us were, because it was necessary or because it seemed best: she loved to wear them! …”
America was taking to Daisy’s notion. Carried along on the momentum of progressivism and the war, Girl Scouting provoked relatively little controversy and grew rapidly. From eight girls in 1912, the organization increased to five thousand in 1915 and to approximately forty-two thousand in 1920.
In that year, at the National Girl Scout Convention, Daisy resigned from the presidency, taking the title of founder. She declared her purpose to promote the movement worldwide, thus allowing herself, in her personal and somewhat erratic way, to work without the limitations of routine. By now she had become something of a hazard in the young bureaucracy. For instance, she is reported to have organized her bills into stacks under the categories “This Year,” “Next Year,” “Sometime,” and “Never.” As founder she worried about an unrelated variety of problems—trying to get the unwilling Mrs. Herbert Hoover to speak at the international meeting, the problem of creating Hungarian Girl Scouts against the opposition of the Catholic Church, and dealing with the charge that Girl Scouts had reduced the number of Boy Scouts by debasing the Scout name.
Her relationship with Baden-Powell remained on its high spiritual level. Every now and then he wrote her letters of moral uplift, retiring her dedication to her task. But even B-P’s inspirational communications didn’t keep her from feeling increasingly out of touch. In 1925 she wrote to her dear friend and Scout executive Jane Rippin: “I appreciate your writing to me—I feel so often that I am drifting away from the heart of the organization. Therefore when I am taken into your confidence, it rejoices me. ”
The Fourth International Conference was Daisy’s last major effort. It brought together Scout leaders from all over the world for the first conference held outside England. Daisy fought hard to prevent it from taking place in Switzerland, eventually paying for one delegate from each country to come to America. As much as her failing health permitted, Daisy welcomed dignitaries, participated in ceremonials, and worried over details. Agnes and Robert Baden-Powell presented her with a silver fish, the highest Girl Guide decoration.
By now Daisy knew she was dying. She had had cancer for several years and had undergone a number of operations. When her doctor told her she had very little time left, Daisy asked if she could make a last trip to England to say good-by to old friends and sort out her affairs. He said yes, if she hurried. Using all her remaining stamina, Daisy managed the journey, returning to Savannah with only ten days left to live. Three years before, on the eve of an operation, she had written her sister Mabel about her feelings on death. “I want you to realize … that I am glad to die . I look forward to seeing the parents, Willy Low, and … all the people I have loved and lost. I’ve always dreaded growing old and being a burden to my family. I am very glad to go when I have set my house in order … I have no ties that make parting here on earth an agony.”
Daisy died on January 18, 1927, and was buried wearing her full uniform, the silver fish pin, a jeweled “Thanks” badge from her Scouts, and a telegram in her pocket from the head of the Girl Scouts of America saying, “You are not only the first Girl Scout but the best Girl Scout of them all.”
Daisy once told the story “of a small friend of mine who, at the age of 8 years, prayed every night for a bicycle. On Christmas his mother had placed among his toys a tricycle. He got straight down on his knees and murmured, ‘Oh, God, I did think you knew the difference between a bicycle and a tricycle.’ ”
More than half child herself, Daisy had kept her understanding of childhood throughout her long life. Sympathy with the defenseless dominated the egocentricity, impulsiveness, and hypersensitivity in her complex nature. This sympathy, combined with her sense of humor, made her the gifted midwife that she was.