16 September 2013

To help people at all times: Juliette Gordon Low facts and myths

I have been a Girl Scout all my life, and as such have learned bits and pieces about its founder Juliette Gordon Low. But I put those to the test while reading Stacy A. Cordery's biography of Low, released last year to coincide with the Scouts' 100th anniversary in America. Turns out, I had a lot of misconceptions. Test whether you know

Was a Southern Belle who made good: True, for the most part; Low was born in Savannah and lived many of her later years there. But her mother was Northern (a Kinzie of Chicago) and their marriage caused some scandal in town, particularly during the Civil War as Low's father fought for the Confederacy and his father- and brother-in-law were visiting as part of the occupation.
Married an English lord and founded the Scouts after living in England: True -- Low and her husband (not a lord, but an aristocrat of some stripe) were friends with Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts. Still, and this is 100 percent my speculation, I don't think she would have been so involved in the charity work that led her to Baden-Powell if her marriage hadn't been so miserable. Andrew Low (who Juliette met on a visit to Savannah) turned out to be a gambler and philanderer, and when Low finally filed for divorce he stretched it out as long as possible to avoid paying her anything. So long, in fact, that he died before it was finalized.
Founded the Girl Scouts in America: Officially true, but really up for debate. After the success of the Boy Scouts in Britain, Baden-Powell founded the Girl Guides to complement them ("scouts" being seen as a term that could not be shared with the female sex). Several American women formed some kind of Scouting-adjacent organization in the years after, and it was primarily through Low's connections and her publicity work that she put herself out in front of American Girl Scouting.
Was born mostly deaf and struggled with her hearing: False, mostly. Childhood illness and an incident where a grain of rice was lodged in her ear during the wedding (so tragic!) damaged her hearing, but what did the worst damage was all the doctors who tried to undo that work with experimental surgeries and weird substances poured into her ears. To the end she often spoke in public, but rarely gave interviews -- possibly because she feared misunderstanding the questions.

What unites these four points that I've highlighted here? I was struck by how much of Low's life was possible because of what back then would have been called "good breeding" and what now we might call "the financial freedom made possible by being upper-class." Despite being an unmarried woman in a conservative culture, Low had a great deal of autonomy throughout her life because she had family money, then her husband's money. She traveled late in life all over the world and was able to devote her midlife to Scouting because, for the time, she was remarkably emancipated -- because of her finances and class. 

This is the kind of thing Girl Scouting would not be the same without, but obviously would be difficult to address in any kind of organizational capacity. It didn't make me feel conflicted about growing up in Scouting (to which I owe some of my best friends and so many, many good things) but it made me think about how, as the organization moves into the 21st century, it can empower girls today to have the same freedoms in an era where there is so much more opportunity.

No comments: