Girl Scouts 100th anniversary: Juliette Gordon Low's group has always been ahead of its time.

The Girl Scouts Have Always Been Ahead of Their Time

The Girl Scouts Have Always Been Ahead of Their Time

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
March 11 2012 9:21 PM

The Girl Scouts Have Always Been Ahead of Their Time

Also check out Magnum Photos' look at scouting around the world.

Amanda Marcotte Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is writer for Salon.

As Girl Scouts nationwide celebrate the 100th anniversary of their beloved organization, there has been a mild uptick in interest in the inner workings of cookie-selling, life-skills-developing institution, especially in comparison to the Boy Scouts. While neither organization can be described as particularly political, the Girl Scouts really do seem more empowering and more tolerant than the Boy Scouts. A recent biography by Stacey Cordery about the founder of the Girl Scouts, titled Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts, sheds some light on how an organizations originally intended to be an auxiliary to the Boy Scouts has grown to overshadow it in many ways. From its earliest days, Girl Scouts of the USA was an ambitious organization that looked to expand the horizons of girls past what most of society thought possible.


Juliette Gordon-Low, known to most people in her lifetime as Daisy, didn’t set out to be a woman ahead of her time, but  stumbled into it by virtue of having too strong a personality to live in the background. Raised by a Civil War veteran and a socialite in Savannah, Ga., Gordon Low originally aspired to nothing more than settling down with William Mackay Low, her upper-crust British husband. However, her increasing deafness combined with her husband’s outrageous neglect and adultery pushed Gordon-Low to make a decision nearly unheard of in her time: She filed for divorce.

Juliette Gordon Low with Girl Scouts
Juliette Gordon Low chats with American Delegation of Girl Scouts at England World Camp in 1924. (Girl Scouts of the USA/National Historic Preservation Center)

Her husband died prematurely, saving her from seeing the divorce to the end. But the bold step seems to have pushed Gordon-Low to shed the constraints typically put on women of her era. She traveled alone, forged lasting friendships with with men that didn’t result in marriage, and eventually decided that she had to do something to leave a lasting impression. Her unusual lifestyle led her to a close friendship with Sir Robert Baden-Powell, the British founder of the Boy Scouts and their auxiliary organization, the Girl Guides.

Inspired by those successful organizations, Gordon-Low decided to create a girl’s organization of her own in the United States, but her personality shaped a girls organization that was very different than the Girl Guides of Britain. Baden-Powell established the Girl Guides in way that explicitly didn’t threaten the Boy Scouts, placing a heavy emphasis on domestic labor and feminine arts. Gordon-Low instead pushed her charges to learn many of the skills associated with the Boy Scouts, including athletics, camping, and shooting. To reflect the more feminist leanings of this American organization, Gordon-Low insisted on calling it the Girl Scouts, instead of the more softly named Girl Guides.

The progressive spirit behind its founding has stayed with the Girl Scouts ever since.  In the early days, the group reached out to poorer girls and girls from ethnic backgrounds that were often overlooked by community organizers. Martin Luther King Jr. described Girl Scouts as “a force for desegregation,” due to its integration efforts in the 1950s. Recently, the group has embraced tolerance for atheist and GLBT members, causing a conservative backlash. It’s not surprising that a group founded by an unconventional woman and a supporter of women’s suffrage would have such a legacy to this day.