That 'Crazy Daisy' who started the Girl Scouts
On the 100th anniversary of the Girl Scouts, biographer Stacy A. Cordery talks about Juliette Gordon Low, the unusual woman behind one of the world's most beloved organizations.
On March 12, 2012, the Girl Scouts of the USA celebrate their 100th birthday. And as they do, some would argue that their iconic founder, Juliette Gordon Low, is not as well known as she deserves to be.Skip to next paragraph
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In some ways, Low – born to an affluent Southern family who called their adored but occasionally off-beat second daughter "Crazy Daisy" – was an unlikely founding figure for the Scouts. She never had children of her own. Her marriage to a wealthy Englishman failed in an era when divorce was still a serious stigma. Also, she suffered for most of her adult life from a hearing disability first brought on by a medical mistake and later compounded when a grain of rice flew into her ear on her wedding day.
For Stacy Cordery, author of "Alice," the bestselling 2007 biography of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Low has been a life-long hero. I recently had a chance to talk to Cordery about Juliette Gordon Low, her new biography of the Girl Scouts founder. Following are excerpts of our conversation.
Q. Why did you choose to write a book about Juliette Gordon Low?
A. I never lost my fascination with her from my earliest moment of awareness in the Brownie circle. I’m sure I had a good troop leader who told us about Juliette Low and I remember being impressed by her deafness and that it did not stand in the way of her creating this organization, participated in by me, my mom, and my grandmother.
On a professional level, my interest stems from being a woman historian. Our mandate is to write women back into history. But here’s a woman, we know nothing about her and she’s created this fundamentally important organization, not just for women, but for the entire nation. So for me, as a historian, how exciting is that, to bring her story to a wider audience?
Q. It seems that one of the most formative events of Low's life was her unhappy marriage. Had she not made an unfortunate choice when it came to picking a life partner, would she ever have founded the Girl Scout movement?
A. The easy argument is that being brokenhearted and having to pick up the pieces of your life brings about the preconditions for an enormous life change. You have to go, "Mwwaaah! What do I do now?" That kind of shakeup does cause people to analyze, reevaluate, to think. On the other hand, one thing I learned from researching Juliette Low's life is that she’s deeply steeped in notions of duty and responsibility and giving back and civic awareness. I don’t think that Juliette Low would have responded as positively to the message of boy scouting and girl guiding had the ground not already been planted with those seeds.
By every standard of her day Juliette Gordon Low at the age of 45 was a failure. She had failed at motherhood (in that she had not become a mother), she had failed at being a wife. But [those seeming failures] also play a role in her saying, “You know, one of the things I like about [scouting] is that there’s a Plan B here for girls." And from the very beginning there was that equal emphasis on domestic skills, housekeeping, the things that are important to women, from flower arranging to invalid nursing. But there’s also that avenue of what we would today call career training that was pretty radical and cutting edge at that time.