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organizer of the first Girl Scouts troop in America
Juliette Magill Kinzie Gordon was born in Savannah, Georgia, on October 31, 1860, the second of six children born to William Washington and Eleanor Kinzie Gordon. Her early childhood was complicated by the Civil War, and by her parents' conflicting views on slavery. Her father, a Georgia-born Southern slave owner, believed in the succession of the South from the Union, while her Northern-born mother, whose family had helped found the city of Chicago, believed in abolition. While her father served in the Confederate Army as a Captain, Juliette, her sister, and her mother lived with her maternal grandparents in Chicago. By 1865, the family had reunited in Savannah and, thanks to her mother's efforts to recoup their financial losses in the South, Juliette's father was able to revitalize the family cotton plantation.
As a child, Juliette developed what was to become a lifetime interest in the arts. She wrote poems, sketched, wrote and acted in plays, and later became a skilled painter and sculptor. She was also very athletic, becoming a strong swmmer and captain of a rowing team as a girl, and learning to canoe as an adult; she was also an avid tennis player.
In her teens, Juliette attended a boarding school at the Virginia Female Institute in Staunton, Virginia. She subsequently attended Mesdemoiselles Charbonniers, a French finishing school in New York City. After finishing her education, she traveled extensively in the United States and Europe.
On December 21, 1886, Juliette married William Mackay Low, a wealthy Englishman, at Christ Church in Savannah. Although the couple lived in England,she continued her travels and divided her time between the British Isles and America.
Before her marriage, Juliette had suffered from chronic ear infections and had lost most of her hearing in one ear because of improper treatment. At her wedding, a grain of good-luck rice thrown at the event lodged in her ear. While trying to remove the rice, the doctor punctured the eardrum and damaged the nerve-endings, resulting in a total loss of hearing in that ear.
Low came back to America to aid in the Spanish-American War effort. She and her mother organized a convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers returning from Cuba. Her father was commissioned as a general in the U.S. Army and served on the Puerto Rican Peace Commission. At the end of the war Juliette returned to England and to a disintegrating marriage. William Low was an abusive alcoholic and had taken a mistress, and the Lows were in the process of divorcing when he suddenly died in 1905.
After the war Low spent several years searching for something useful to do with her life. Her search ended in 1911, when she met Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, and became interested in the new youth movement. During that year she organized a troop of Girl Guides (the female equivalent of the Boy Scouts) among poor girls at her estate at Glenlyon, Scotland, and then founded two more troops in London. On March 12, 1912, Juliette Low gathered 18 girls to register the first troop of American Girl Guides. Margaret "Daisy Doots" Gordon, her niece and namesake, was the first registered member. The name of the organization was changed to the Girl Scouts of America the following year. The organization was incorporated in 1915 with the national headquarters at Washington, D.C., with Low serving as president until 1920 when she was bestowed the rightful title of founder.
In developing the Girl Scout movement in the United States, Low 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 girls with disabilities at a time when they were excluded from many other activities, an idea that came naturally to a woman who never let deafness, back problems or cancer keep her from full participation in life.
Low was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1923, but she kept her illness a secret and kept working on behalf of the Girl Scouts until her death, which came at her Savannah home on Lafayette Square on January 17, 1927. She was buried at Laurel Grove Cemetery in Savannah, in her Girl Scout uniform.
This page was last updated on March 12, 2017.