More than 100 years ago, Juliette Gordon Low started a global movement, opening up a trove of new possibilities for girls at a time when women still couldn’t vote. Low’s legacy lives on today in the organization she founded, as the Girl Scouts mark their 107th year.
Born in Savannah, Georgia on Oct. 31, 1860, Low was a child of a prominent family, known to her friends as “Daisy.” She was married in 1886 to William Mackay Low, but the tumultuous marriage was short-lived, according to a Girl Scouts biography of Low.
In 1912, Low met and befriended Sir Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of Boy Scouts, who wanted to form a similar organization for girls. Low was immediately inspired by the idea, and together, they formed troops in Scotland and London called the “Girl Guides.”
Low returned home inspired by her work with the Girl Guides and eager to bring the organization to the U.S. With the help of family and friends, the first American Girl Guides troops were formed.
According to the National Women's History Museum, each troop was divided into smaller units named after a flower, having regular meetings and learning a wide set of skills such as map reading, first aid, cooking and knot tying. Low had also adopted the British Girl Guides’ system of awarding badges to girls who became proficient in various other skills.
In 1913, just one year after its founding, the organization expanded to multiple states and changed its name to Girl Scouts, publishing the first American Girl Scout handbook, which was titled, “How Girls Can Help Their Country.”
Throughout World War I, Low traveled back and forth between America and Great Britain, becoming heavily involved in humanitarian work, helping refugees and families affected by the war. The Girl Scouts worked closely with the American Red Cross, providing bandages and other knitted items for servicemen.
After the war, Olave Baden-Powell, former wife of the Boy Scouts founder, formed an International Council of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts in which Low acted as the American representative. There was a global initiative to expand both organizations, successfully creating troops in South Africa, Australia, China and many other countries.
For her efforts, Low was awarded the Girl Guides’ Silver Fish award, the organization’s highest honor.
Low was diagnosed with breast cancer in the early 1920s, but still was heavily active in spreading the Girl Scouts’ mission until her death in 1927.
In 2012, Barack Obama awarded Low the Presidential Medal of Freedom and her birthplace became designated as a National Historic Landmark.
Nearly 100 years after her death, Low’s legacy lives on. According to the organization’s website, the Girl Scouts of America boast 50 million alumni, with about 2.6 million current active members.