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.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Juliette Gordon Low (at far right, with members of Troop #1) was "someone like Donald Trump," says biographer Stacy A. Cordery. "When you engage with her you know that there’s a huge personality out there."

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.

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.

But when she met Boy Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell in 1911 she knew almost instantly that she wanted to dedicate the rest of her life to creating a similar organization for girls.

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.

Q. Low's mother Nelly Gordon was a formidable figure in her own right. What role did she play in all this?

A. Juliette Low's mother Nelly was a terrific role model for all kinds of things. To have a mother who founds the Colonial Dames of Georgia, who brings the Red Cross chapter to Savannah, these sorts of things are priceless lessons in what women can accomplish. She started a convalescent hospital for the wounded of the Spanish American War. She just rolled up her sleeves and said, “There’s a need here.” Holy mackerel.

Her mother plays a very important role in Daisy's life as most mothers do in most girls' lives. But Nelly was more bigoted than Daisy. Had Nelly founded the Girl Scouts there wouldn’t have been integrated troops [as early as there were.] Her mother talked about the “common, common people” that Daisy hung out with. Maybe there wouldn’t have been factory girls, maybe she wouldn’t have let them in. It have been a very different organization had Nelly founded it. Juliette Low had a wider experience than her mother did.

Q. Why did her family give Low the nickname of "Crazy Daisy"? 

A. I think there was an angle to this “Crazy Daisy” side of [Juliette Low]. When she was young [she tended to] take on the role of the comforter and the amuser, the one who makes things better by putting on a positive and cheerful spin on them. She got strokes in the family for making people happy and being amusing.

Aas she got older, 15, 16 or so, that range of Crazy Daisy stories disappears from the narrative, as though she’s maturing, growing up, becoming herself. I think she’s on a path then to no longer being known as Crazy Daisy.

Then the accident with the ear and then the rice in the ear. Now she’s in a position where she’s making mistakes through no fault of her own. She can’t hear. So part of [not] hearing [well] is that  someone says “XYZ” and  you respond “ABC.” It makes you respond in a way that other people around you interpret as a little bit odd. So she comes back to this Crazy Daisy thing. I think part of it anyway was her way of coping with her disability. No one ever has to say to her, “Poor pitiful Daisy.” Instead they say, “Oh, she’s such a crackup.”

Q. One surprising thing about Low's role as the founder of a major organization is that she was not actually very organized. Did that stand in her way?

She was not a good organizer of some things. In fact, her more important skill than organization was her ability to choose the exact right person for the job. So she didn’t have to be the great organizer because she could find a great lieutenant who could organize for her. And then if she didn’t appear when she should have or if she just appeared on the fly, it was just "Crazy Daisy" all over again.

Juliette Low was confidently a happy, outgoing, optimistic type person. All reformers were. A progressive-era reformer was an optimist. If you don’t believe you can’t reform. It all comes together into a picture of a women who really wasn’t crazy. She couldn’t be flighty or a little bit dumb or daft to found the organization that she did. And she didn’t just found it. She created it, she organized it, she grew it, she monitored it.

She’s someone like Donald Trump. When you engage with her you know that there’s a huge personality out there. I think she would have been phenomenally successful if she had started this in 2012 because she would have gotten all the media sensibility that we need today. I think she would have aced that.

Q. If she could be here today, what would she say about the Girl Scouts?

A. I think that, with that preternatural optimism of hers, the only thing she’d be surprised about is that there aren’t more girls involved.

Q. You mean three million-plus Girl Scouts wouldn’t seem like enough to her?

A. Not for Daisy.

Q. The Girl Scouts today are stressing the importance of STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] learning skills. What would Low say about that?

A. She would say, “That’s exactly what I had in mind.” Remember, the first [Girl Scout] manual said, “Girls can go anything.” You can be an engineer. You can be an astronaut. Whatever. Juliette Low was fascinated by new technology. She loved anything new. She loved airplanes. Cars. I think that for Girl Scouts today to talk about cyber bullying and financial literacy and the dangers of sexting for girls, this is cutting-edge stuff and I think that she would say, “Yes. Perfect. This is just what I wanted.” The first [Girl Scout] manual had a badge on aeronautics.

Q. Did Juliette Low ever find happiness?

A. Because her whole world view was constructed around this cluster of ideas about duty and responsibility and doing good in the world, I think her brother nailed it when he said, “My sister was lucky enough to see her dreams turn into reality. Not everyone is that lucky.”

I think there was a tremendous satisfaction for her in life in working with these girls, working with the women, maintaining these long-term friendships, doing good in the world. Remember that her last decade was about the world. It was such a brave thing to move into international peace through international understanding or friendships. It was very counter-culture. I think that Juliette Gordon Low understood that a life well-lived, challenges successfully met, lives touched in a positive way, was for her the definition of happiness.

Q. What would the world be without the Girl Scouts? What has their great gift been?

A. The great gift of Girl Scouts to girls and women has been to teach us that we really can do anything we can dream about doing. For me is was to learn sign language and to learn how to communicate with the deaf. Because I thought, "Wow, how cool is that? If I learned Sign language I could communicate with Juliette Low or with people who had a similar disability." That was the first thing that, when I was 6 or 7, she inspired me to do.

I know there are girls and women all over who open that manual and go, “Whoa, really? I could do that? Other girls do that? Together we can build a prosthetic arm or whatever?” I think it puts before girls new vistas with the compelling message that says, “You can accomplish this. You. Not the girl next to you. You. And all of us together, we can do ten times that.”

Q. So much has changed over the last century. Why have the Girl Scouts have endured?

A. The traditions of Girl Scouting endure. I speak to women who say, "Those traditions matter to me and I want to teach them to my daughters."

Juliette Gordon Low was visionary. She understood that girls wanted to be taken seriously, wanted to be involved in the fabric of their communities and their nation. There was a hunger, a deep abiding hunger for stuff that only boys had then. She got that. She knew that.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's Books editor.

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