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Countdown to Savannah: An American Heroine from Savannah - Juliette Gordon Low
Kathy Wood (kaydee)
In early 2007, we started our official Countdown to Savannah. Each Sunday, we posted a different topic about this special city where we met for our first Great Slow Travel Gathering in Spring 2008.
With 63 posts over 14+ months, we learned a lot about the many facets of this historic, hospitable and intriguing American city. Our weekly posts touched on Savannah's history, famous people, architecture, food, culture, surrounding area and much more. We hope this information acquaints you with Savannah, entices you to visit this historic city, and prepares you for a very memorable trip.
Founder of the Girl Scouts of the USA
When I was seven years old, I saved up my allowance to buy a book called “Great American Heroines.” It was the first book I ever bought with my own money and for years it was my favorite. I still have this book in my library today, and my daughter has enjoyed it, too. I was inspired by the stories of courageous women who made a difference. And, because I was a Brownie, one of of the stories I most enjoyed was about a woman from Savannah: the founder of the Girl Scouts of the USA, Juliette Gordon Low.
Juliette Gordon Low (nicknamed "Daisy") was born on October 31, 1860, in Savannah, Georgia in a large house at the corner of Oglethorpe Street and Bull Street. She was from a prominent well-to-do family, and her father was a captain in the Confederate army. Juliette was a debutante and attended boarding school in Virginia and a French finishing school in New York City. As a young woman, she traveled extensively in the USA and Europe.
When she was 26, Juliette married William Mackay Low, the son of a very wealthy family with homes in Savannah and England. They were married at Christ Church in Savannah. For the first year of their marriage, Juliette and "Willie" lived in the Low family home on Lafayette Square in Savannah, but then they moved to the family estate in England. Juliette divided her time between Britain and America, living a high-society lifestyle. They didn’t have any children and spent much time apart, eventually resulting in a troubled marriage. "In 1902 William Low abandoned his wife for another woman and asked for a divorce. Divorce proceedings were under way when he died in 1905. His death created new problems for Juliette. After their separation he had made a will that bequeathed most of his property to his mistress and left Juliette with only a small annual allowance. She contested the will and eventually received a settlement that made her a wealthy woman." (New Georgia Encyclopedia)
Many people don’t know that Juliette Low lived much of her life with a major disability. As a young woman, she had chronic ear infections and lost most of the hearing in one ear because of improper treatment. According to the Girl Scouts website, at her wedding festivities, a grain of rice stuck in her other ear, puncturing the eardrum. This caused an infection and total loss of hearing in that ear, too.
She Found Her Life's Work
After her husband’s death, Juliette spent several years searching for something useful to do with her life and financial resources. In 1911, she met Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides in England, and found the opportunity she had been searching for. She got involved with a troop of Girl Guides and returned to America determined to start a similar organization at home.
"Less than a year later she… made her historic telephone call to a friend… saying, ‘I've got something for the girls of Savannah, and all of America, and all the world, and we're going to start it tonight!’ On March 12, 1912, Juliette Low gathered 18 girls to register the first troop of American Girl Guides…. The name of the organization was changed to Girl Scouts the following year." (Girl Scouts website)
Juliette "previously had tended to embrace new projects enthusiastically, only to abandon them when her interest flagged. Scouting, however, was different; at age fifty-one she had found her life's work. She devoted the next fifteen years to building the organization, which would become the largest voluntary association for women and girls in the United States. She enlisted friends and family in the cause and traveled throughout the nation recruiting leaders and members. She drafted the Girl Scout laws, supervised the writing of the first handbook in 1913, and provided most of the financial support for the organization during its early years.
"GSUSA rapidly surpassed similar groups, such as the Camp Fire Girls. By 1925 there were more than 90,000 active Girl Scouts in the United States. The organization owed much of its success to Juliette Low, who embodied a unique combination of resources and attributes. Equally at home in Britain and America, she had close ties to scouting's originator, Baden-Powell, and an extensive network of influential relatives and friends in the United States. She was unencumbered by family responsibilities or the necessity of earning a living. Witty and charming, Juliette Low was at ease when she met new people. Above all, she possessed boundless energy, an indomitable will, and an unshakable conviction that scouting would benefit girls and the nation. When Low called on adults to support the fledgling movement, few refused." (New Georgia Encyclopaedia)
Continues Her Inspiration
The story of Juliette Low is still a very inspiring one to me. She helped shape an America that offered more possibilities and options for young women. "In developing the Girl Scout movement in the United States, Juliette brought girls of all backgrounds into the out-of-doors, giving them the opportunity to develop self-reliance and resourcefulness. She encouraged girls to prepare not only for traditional homemaking, but also for possible future roles as professional women—in the arts, sciences and business—and for active citizenship outside the home. Girl Scouting welcomed disabled girls at a time when they were excluded from many other activities. This idea seemed quite natural to Juliette, who never let deafness, back problems or cancer keep her from full participation in life." (Girl Scouts website)
Juliette developed breast cancer and died in at the Lafayette Square house in Savannah in January 1927 at the age of 67. She was buried in her Girl Scout uniform, next to her parents at Laurel Grove Cemetery in Savannah.
Since Juliette held her first meeting with 18 girls in Savannah in 1912, Girl Scouting has grown to 3.7 million members in this country. Girl Scouts is the largest educational organization for girls in the world. More than 50 million American women have been members, including me, and I’m sure many other Slow Travelers and our family members. Juliette continues to be a role model for young women all these years later, and the Girl Scouts program for kindergardeners is named "Daisy Girl Scouts" in her honor. Thousands of current and former Brownies and Girl Scouts come to Savannah each year to visit the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, now owned by the Girl Scouts of the USA. The Andrew Low house on Lafayette Square, where Juliette lived from her marriage until her death, is also open to the public.
Next week's Countdown will focus on the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace and the Andrew Low House, two of Savannah's most famous historic homes.
Learn more about Juliette Gordon Low and the founding of the Girl Scouts in Savannah:
Girl Scouts of the USA: Juliette Gordon Low biography
New Georgia Encyclopaedia: Juliette Gordon Low
Georgia Women of Achievement: Juliette Gordon Low
Books about Juliette Gordon Low, many for young people.
All About Savannah: Links to many information pages about Savannah (where to eat, where to stay, places of interest, getting around town, and more)
Woods Family Grand Tour of Europe: List of articles and photo albums by Kathy Wood
© Kathy Wood, 2007
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