Were you a Girl Scout or Girl Guide growing up?
The Girl Scouts were a large part of my childhood. Campouts, community causes, selling cookies and earning badges occupied much of my free time growing up. I formed one of my dearest friendships as a scout, and it continues 50+ years later as a true testament to the power of sisterhood.
You could say my friendship started with Juliette Gordon who was born to an elite family in Savannah, Georgia just as the Civil War broke out.
Her family called her Daisy and she was instructed in the typical society talents such as playing the piano and drawing.
But her true inclination was to explore outdoors, play tennis and ride horses -all considered to be most unladylike in the late 1800’s. Seeing her portrait as a young woman, she looks every bit the proper society girl. Who knew?!
But by the age of 17 Juliette started to lose her hearing. On her wedding day to William Mackay Low, a wealthy Englishman with ties to Savannah, a grain of rice thrown by a wedding guest lodged in her ear and became infected. Both ears deteriorated quickly after this incident and she was essentially deaf the rest of her life.
After her marriage, she moved to England but found living among the British aristocracy was not her cup of tea.
The marriage was an unhappy one and when her husband took a mistress, Juliette wanted a divorce. At the time, this was scandalous and not really an option. But William died before the divorce was finalized and Juliette discovered he had left his estate to his mistress. Thankfully, Juliette successfully regained her rightful share.
When Juliette decided it was time to search for a new purpose in life, she happened to meet British war hero, Robert Baden-Powell. This changed everything. They became fast friends and she developed an interest in two of his new organizations, the Boy Scouts and the Girl Guides. Juliette started organizing new troops in Scotland and London. The effect of the organization on the girls self-esteem was so noticeable, that Juliette decided to bring the organization to the United States.
Within 6 months of returning to Savannah to form the first Girl Guide troop, Juliette had established six new troops. In 1913, she founded the Girl Scouts of the United States and became its first President. Working to expand the organization nationwide, Juliette held their first national convention in 1915. It wasn’t long before the Girls Scouts would become the most important organization for girls in the country.
The Girl Scouts epitomize everything Juliette valued: duty to country, community involvement and opportunities to bond with nature and the outdoors.
She knew that nature offered secrets to understanding our place in the world.
The organization also stressed the importance of skills that encouraged independence and sisterhood, something sorely lacking in Juliette’s own childhood. Juliette wanted to show girls that there were things in life outside of the traditional roles of the time.
Qualities that became important to Juliette during her unhappy marriage and widowhood were self-reliance and independence.
Juliette encouraged the girls to study mathematics and sciences and also consider professional careers. This would provide the opportunity to do anything they wanted to do regardless of the roles society set for women.
From the beginning, the Girl Scouts were open to all girls regardless of race, creed or financial status. In the 1930s, scout materials were even printed in braille so no one was excluded. Juliette also made it a priority to accept all girls with disabilities, something not normally done at the time. Her philosophy of welcoming all girls into the Girl Scouts continues today, including the recent 2011 acceptance of a transgender member into a Colorado troop .
In 1927, Juliette died at the age of 66. As per her request, she was buried in her beloved Girl Scout uniform. A telegram from the National Board of Girl Scouts of the United States was placed in her pocket-it read: “You are not only the first Girl Scout, you are the best Girl Scout of them all.”
Today, there are more than 10 million girl scouts and girl guides in 145 countries all dedicated to empowering young girls by developing leadership skills, academic success and self-sufficiency, not to mention the shared support of their fellow scouts and their leaders. Juliette would be proud!