How Juliette Gordon Low and her Girl Scouts of America introduced feminism to generations of girls
March is Women’s History Month, so it’s totally fitting that it’s also the anniversary month of the Girl Scouts, the international girl-led scouting program. Anyone who has sported one of those cute sashes or pinned on a trefoil knows that the Girl Scouts are about more than their famous cookies. Girl Scouts has introduced the very basics of feminism to generations of girls for 106 years.
And the Girl Scouts couldn’t have been established without founder and all around wonder woman, Juliette Gordon Low.
Juliette was born on Halloween 1860 in Savannah, Georgia. As a child, she was curious, adventurous, artistic, and notoriously disaster prone — but that clumsiness didn’t slow her down. Besides starting a literary newspaper featuring her early poetry, Juliette also founded the Helpful Hands Club. Focused on doing good in their community, she taught the group to sew clothes for Italian immigrants — showing a commitment to philanthropy that she’d later instill in her Scouts.
As a young woman, she traveled the world and eventually settled in England with her husband, William Mackay Low. Unfortunately, the relationship was strained by her inability to have children and her husband’s cheating, gambling, and drinking. However, Juliette didn’t allow these issues to dominate her life.
Isolated from her husband, she learned to hunt, ride bareback, metalwork, and ironwork. Committed to helping those who needed it the most, she joined a local nursing association to care for women and children with leprosy. To Juliette, the greatest use of her time and resources was acting in the service of others.
Thanks to all of her travel and charity work, Juliette eventually met Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts of America. The two had very similar ideals and Juliette became motivated to join his Girl Guides — an offshoot of Boy Scouts. There, Juliette’s fascination with learning really came in handy. She taught skills like spinning wool, care for livestock, cooking, camping, map reading, and first aid to local girls — all in an effort to promote self-sufficiency.
In March 1912, Juliette attempted to spread the Girl Guides to her home in Savannah. While the group grew, it faced competition from other girl-focused organizations, specifically the Campfire Girls. Juliette and Baden-Powell suggested a merger of their group with the Campfire Girls, but founder James E. West rejected the idea. West felt that the Girl Guides promoted skills and hobbies that were “gender-inappropriate” for young ladies.
Juliette obviously thought otherwise.
She knew that girls were capable of anything and was unwilling to limit their chances.
The rejection inspired her to take the Girl Guides nationally, forming a headquarters in Washington D.C. and giving them a new name. Though Juliette had secured lots of famous patrons for her Girl Scouts — Mina Miller Edison (wife of Thomas Edison) and Susan Ludlow Parish (Eleanor Roosevelt’s godmother) to name a few — she financed most operations by herself.
In fact, it was a selfless act that secured the funds to keep the national movement alive. In 1914, in order to pay rent on the Girl Scout National Office, she sold her strand of rare matched pearls for $8,000 — the equivalent of over $200,000 today.
Her efforts were successful. Juliette’s Girl Scouts helped during World War I, planting gardens to grow food rations, creating surgical dressings for the Red Cross, and making clothes, scrapbooks, and smokeless candles for soldiers. Their work earned them the recognition of President Herbert Hoover and showed the whole nation just what girls can do.
Towards the end of her life, Juliette developed breast cancer but kept it hidden in order to continue Scout duties. When she died in 1927, she was laid to rest in her Girl Scout uniform and accompanied by an honor guard of Girl Scouts.
A note left in Juliette’s pocket read: “You are not only the first Girl Scout, but the best Girl Scout of them all.”
Feminism often gets misunderstood as anti-man, and that misconception even turns some women away from the ideology. But Juliette was able to instill the very basics of feminism into a program that opened new worlds for millions of girls and taught them to have pride in their girlhood.
Juliette dedicated her whole life to educating girls and teaching them about all the possibilities within their reach. She stressed the importance of helping those in need and making communities better through group efforts. Above all else, she promoted an environment of girls supporting other girls.
If that isn’t feminism, we don’t know what is.