Sitting in a close circle, the girls in the group buzz about being invited to the dance, a fight with a friend, schoolwork due the next day. It could be a scene from any high school, middle school, or even elementary school in the United States today. But I like to imagine it might just as easily be something like a moment at one of the first meetings of the Girl Scouts of the USA. The group, then called Girl Guides, started meeting one hundred years ago, with its leaders encouraging girls to become leaders of the future.
It was then that Juliette Gordon Low, affectionately known to everyone as Daisy, founded the Girl Scouts as a group to strengthen girls’ characters through skill-building and learning individual responsibility. The Girl Scouts of today, like those of a century ago, thrive on friendships formed within the group and take what they have learned into adulthood. The story of Daisy is that of every American woman: that of finding herself. But it is also the tale of the woman who has influenced millions, who gave girls a voice even before they had a vote, or before they were likely to compete in a professional sport, run a company, or hold a patent.
Politicians, first ladies, journalists, and actresses are just a handful among the more than fifty million women who were once Girl Scouts. Girl Scouts are currently running our country: about half of the women now in Congress were once Girl Scouts. There are Girl Scouts in all fifty states, and of course, even famous former Girl Scouts, including Lucille Ball, Dorothy Hamill, and Katie Couric. Something every woman has in common as she is trying to find her place in the world is that she was, once, a girl. What happened or didn’t happen to her then doesn’t force any absolute outcomes, but it shapes in little and big ways the person she becomes. Daisy’s character and how she formed the Girl Scouts continues to influence generations. To me, Daisy was a feminist, an environmentalist, and a self-help author (through her contributions in guidebooks), before anyone used those terms. She was forward-thinking not only in her early promotion of women’s leadership, but also in the value she placed on service to others, and inclusivity for girls of diverse religions, races, and economic classes. As fellow Girl Scout leaders and former Girl Scouts know, what she founded defies any sort of simple categorization. Yet we still feel the power in the work she did all those years ago.
From my first days as a Girl Scout troop leader, I was struck by how relevant Daisy’s advice still is for us today. So many of the things I want for my kids—spending more time outdoors, knowing where their food comes from, finding work they love, being a good friend—were all encouraged by Daisy and have become part of what Girl Scouts talk about and strive toward, together. I’ve also realized this is a particularly crucial moment to understand these lessons, as we are in many ways becoming overdependent on technology, less aware of the natural world around us, and most importantly, less connected to each other. In these times of cyber-bullying and social networking, we need to remember to make time to truly connect, and this is especially true of Girl Scout age girls, five- to seventeen-year-olds. We need to talk face to face with young girls, take walks together, and eat meals with each other. Developing real relationships is one of the true tenets of Girl Scouting, and one that guards against children falling through the cracks and feeling alone. When this understanding of human connection starts at an early age, it becomes part of a girl’s internal fabric and helps her navigate the years ahead. I believe and have seen in my own troop that The Girl Scout uses her own intuition and knowledge to solve problems, developing a personal life compass. But at the same time, when a difficulty or roadblock comes up, she is less likely to feel alone, and will instead to look to her friends, including her sisters, to help her through the tough times. As Girl Scouts celebrates in 2012 its founding one hundred years ago by Daisy, the simple but profound encouragement of women seems more germane to our time than ever. It is what we need now, not just for the 3.2 million active members of Girl Scouts, but for our entire society.
Every intertwined aspect of Girl Scouting works to develop “courage, confidence, and character in young women.” It happens not by lecturing the girls, but by guiding them to learn and accomplish things for themselves, to become, as many Girl Scouts call themselves, “Greenbloods.” Juliette Gordon Low was much more than the namesake founder of the organization. Her personality, her way of looking at the world, and her irrepressible joie de vivre can be seen and felt in generation after generation of Girl Scouts.
This is more than just being a good girl who sells cookies. In fact, if there’s a misconception about being a Girl Scout, it’s that she’s annoyingly perfect. Actually, the true Girl Scout is flawed like all of us, but trying and succeeding in our confusing, thorny, miraculous, real world. Being a Girl Scout is about being whoever you are, learning to do new things, and excelling, not so much in one subject, but in your own life. The soul of Girl Scouts is the same as its founder. Daisy was not the typical good girl with the ideal life. She got into trouble and was very outspoken. Her personal trials included becoming nearly deaf and marrying badly. But she moved beyond those difficulties to become an unusual and powerful role model for millions of girls.
Like many former Girl Scouts and mothers of Girl Scouts, until recently I knew Juliette Gordon Low’s name and just a bit about her, but little else. A few years ago, with a group of neighborhood parents, I stood on the corner in front of a big brown Victorian on a Madison, Wisconsin, fall morning. I waved good-bye to the school bus taking our kindergartners, including my older daughter Eve, away to their world. My mind swam with the need to find my youngest daughter Julia’s green froggy boots and just one set of crayons.
My new neighbor, Dana, broke my household reverie. “Would Eve like to join the Girl Scouts?”
We’d moved in the week before, a month late for kindergarten and not knowing anyone in town. After spending most of my life in Washington, DC, then two years in Denver, Colorado, we’d moved to this Midwest college town, to a neighborhood where we could walk to parks, coffee shops, and the zoo, and where my husband would practice cardiology. It sounded like a good life, and it was, but it would take time to build it, to make it our home. My job had shifted from full-time writer to part-time writer to manager of getting our lives back on track. Dana’s question was an invitation to a community. Like many places in the country, Girl Scouts is a really big deal here. Girl Scouts. Yes. Thank you.
At the end of that school year, the college students running Eve’s Girl Scout Daisy troop (the name for the youngest Girl Scouts) told us they were moving on, and that the leadership would need to be taken over by parents, or the troop would disband. Melissa and Sherry, two of the other moms, and I decided we’d take on the troop. How hard would it be with three of us? We are all moms of all girls. Melissa and Sherry each have three girls and I have two. The way girls talk and move and laugh and live is a part of our homes and every moment of our consciousness. Melissa is a champion of the underserved and the underdog, running her own nonprofit law firm in Madison. Sherry is a historian and former curator at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, which is where the Ringling Bros. Circus was founded. They are both athletic and funny, and are the kind of strong women friends you are glad you’ve found. Melissa has said sometimes she forgets to email me about something because we communicate telepathically. When we are running a meeting with the girls, our twelve different, wonderful girls, we can convey so much to each other without even speaking. We share a wavelength, a common language.
Because I am a reporter at heart and because I’m intensely curious (some would say nosy), I love to read and research and question things and people I find interesting. I needed to know about the dairy history of Madison and its Vietnam-era protests before moving; I will often cook food from a vacation spot like South Carolina or Tokyo or New Orleans before and after a visit. So as I began to lead this troop and think back to my own Girl Scout memories (my 1970s-era Girl Scout Brownie uniform and our handmade sit-upons stood out), I searched and read and asked. I watched as the girls proudly earned petal after petal on their Girl Scout Daisy vests, eventually forming the whole flower. At one of our early meetings, we celebrated Founder’s Day, October 31, Juliette Gordon Low’s birthday, by singing “Happy Birthday” and opening a wrapped box we filled with foam cut-out petals that read the parts of the Girl Scout Law that we would work on that year: “Honest and Fair,” “Friendly and Helpful,” and the rest.
Still, my biggest, most burning, and unanswered questions were…Who was Daisy? Who was Juliette Gordon Low? Why did she decide to start the Girl Scouts? I was blown away that an organization started one hundred years ago could have such meaning for my life and that of my daughters. I felt that Daisy’s individual personality wove through what we were learning and doing, and I wanted to know more about her.
As the American founder of the Girl Scouts in 1912, Daisy was not a household name among my friends. Books about her were outdated, hard to find, and definitely not in the mainstream of publishing. How could this be? My daughter and her troopmates might know every detail about a Harry Potter character, but they didn’t even know that their troop was called “Daisy” based on Juliette Low’s nickname. She got that durable name soon after she was born when one of her uncles said: “I bet she’s going to be a daisy!”
When I realized information about Daisy was so difficult to find, my reporter instincts kicked in. I was now incredibly intrigued by how Daisy created a new girls club and what it continues to mean to the American woman. And that is how I became fascinated—obsessed—with Juliette Gordon Low. I wanted to know her story and tell it to the girls. When I decided to write about Daisy and tell her tale, it was clear my first stop would be, of course, where she was born.
I traveled to Savannah to walk around Daisy’s childhood home, and to touch and read her handwritten letters at the Georgia Historical Society. British Lady Nancy Astor once described Savannah as “a pretty woman with a dirty face,” which is apt. Savannah is a gorgeous city with more going on than what you can see at first glance. I later went to New York, to the Girl Scout Headquarters on 5th Avenue, wearing my temporary guest pass, and ensconced myself in a library on the seventeenth floor near the climate-controlled archives to dive into more letters and photos. I was in for a surprise. Her life was more interesting than I could have imagined. My trips to research Daisy’s life were interspersed with our own troop meetings, where, as always, I continued to learn from the girls. As I was researching Girl Scout history, I was also living it in real time.
Daisy was a prolific letter-writer: to her parents, siblings, friends, and acquaintances. That was, of course, the way people communicated then, and news was very old by the time it got through. A letter with lots of information or big news was often requested to be sent on to others (no copying all as in emails). Sometimes, paper was in short supply and a writer would scrawl with her fountain pen on top of another letter, making the inky cursive more difficult to understand. At least once, Daisy instructed the recipient to “burn this letter” after it was read. After reading scores of her letters, I felt I knew Daisy better, having watched her handwriting change from that of a teenager away at school to that of an independent widow. She often drew little pictures and had a sense of humor, and her letters were rife with spelling errors. There is a sadness to many of her letters, sometimes stemming from a family death, but also from her loneliness and difficulty in finding her way for many years. Many of her later letters, after the Girl Scouts was founded, are brimming with joy and pride of accomplishment.
I learned that Daisy grew up in the deep South, and she was four years old when the Civil War ended. She later became partially deaf in one ear and then completely deaf in the other (bizarrely, by a grain of rice thrown at her at her own wedding). Her husband eventually would meet another woman and ask Daisy for a divorce. But before the divorce was final, he died, and Daisy found herself middle-aged, childless, and without a real purpose in life. An introduction at a luncheon and ensuing friendship with Sir Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, encouraged her to found the Girl Scouts when she was in her fifties. Daisy was never a sweet young lady or, in later life, a sweet old lady. She said what was on her mind (usually loudly because she couldn’t hear) and got in people’s way, but she got things done. She was a southern belle with an independence of spirit that both landed her in messes and endeared her to her true friends. She was dramatic, imperfect, and definitely not a saint. She was real.
Daisy’s English Regency–style home in Savannah—where she was born, raised, and held her wedding reception—was saved from demolition, bought, and restored by the Girl Scouts in the 1950s to be a Girl Scout National Program Center. The Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace looks just the way it did in 1886, the year of Daisy’s wedding, and is now a stunning National Historical Landmark, the first to be named in the city. About sixty-five thousand people make the pilgrimage every year to what is known as “The Birthplace.”
When Daisy threw herself into one of her unusual endeavors, nothing stopped her. When she learned blacksmithing, she created new wrought-iron front gates for her house. She worked so hard, she needed different clothes to make room for her newly formed muscles. With her animals all around (she loved dogs both large and small, parrots, and would take in many stray animals) and her antics (such as standing on her head in a meeting to show off the latest Girl Scout uniform shoes), Daisy became a treasured friend to the first Girl Scouts, much like a quirky fairy godmother. Daisy taught the girls to have fun, but at the same time gave them real life lessons, encouraging them to be self-sufficient and smart, and to stand up for themselves. She loved games, and turned every teachable moment into an enjoyable one as well. Daisy saw that girls individually became stronger when they worked collaboratively.
Daisy worked hard for the Girl Scouts, and what she received in return was a purpose and a passion that was put to incredibly good use. In every woman’s life, there comes a time when she wonders what she should have done differently and whether it’s too late to make a change. For Daisy, that moment was in 1911 when she was widowed, childless, in her fifties, and completely unsure of what to do with her life. It was then that she met Sir Robert Baden-Powell and began work with the Girl Guides in Scotland and London. It was far from too late for her, as she then brought the movement to the United States in the following year.
When I first went to “visit” Daisy, I boarded a plane from Madison to Savannah, not really knowing what I would find in her southern hometown, amongst letters and furniture, rumors of ghosts looming in the dining room, and descendants who might not want to field my questions. Walking around her lovely courtyard under the Spanish moss, touching the iron gates Daisy made herself, I thought that what is most lasting—the true legacy—is the sheer inspiration of this woman who has affected so many others. The gates are a wonder. It must have taken enormous strength to create them, as well as artistic skill to shape the detailed flowers, letters, and decorations.
I climbed up and down her stairs, peered through her windows, and felt simpatico with what she wanted to do. While I would not say a ghost accompanied me, I did feel like I was connecting with Daisy. And when I met her great-grandnephew, he was full of southern charm. I saw the houses, restaurants, and streets described with perfect pitch in what Savannahians call “The Book,” Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. One afternoon, weddings popped up in every one of the gorgeous squares I walked through. There are twenty-two in the city—with names like Telfair, Oglethorpe, Ellis, Wright, and Lafayette, which is right across from the house Daisy lived in after she was married. The brides in their different—but all white—dresses walked down the cobblestone paths under big oak trees, and I wondered what Daisy thought on her wedding day, what she mused about when she walked across the street to Lafayette Square, if she stopped at a bench or met a friend for a stroll.
I thought about how Daisy’s world was so different in many ways one hundred years ago, but how so many values she held dear—responsibility and being good to others—are those we place importance on today. I want the girls of my two daughters’ generation to have even more opportunities than I have had; I want them to be strong and smart, to have good friends, and to have a good time. It is amazing to me to think about how women one hundred years ago wanted the same things for their daughters, nieces, and young friends. But at the same time, Daisy’s championing of young women paved the way for a much more equitable world today. In her day, I probably wouldn’t have been hired as a columnist for the business section at the Washington Post, let alone at age twenty-eight. My female friends who are inventors, executives, professors, and doctors would not have had the same opportunities they do now. What I have learned from Daisy is to hang on to and preserve the things that really matter and let the rest simply fall away. It is interesting to study Daisy now; we can learn from role models throughout history about living today. We are constantly bombarded by the up-to-the-minute version of technology or the latest clothing style. Sometimes there is value in looking at the old and adapting it to the new, taking lessons that speak to our core values and making them work for us.
While I was in Savannah I was constantly thinking about our troop at home and how much the girls would love to know more about Daisy, too. My third-grade daughter’s troop is a picture of the modern Girl Scouts. We troop leaders take them on field trips, help them make holiday gifts (from homemade hot chocolate to handmade cake plates), and go on overnight campouts. But we, like Daisy, are far from perfect. I am, sadly, afflicted with a chronic bad sense of direction, not the best attribute for a Girl Scout leader. When we drive to a new location for an activity, I inevitably get lost, and the girls make fun of me. Once, Melissa and I were driving around in two separate cars, unsuccessfully trying to find an ice skating rink where the girls would have a lesson. Eventually we pulled up next to each other on a country road, having completely lost our way in the same spot. Luckily, we were able to call Sherry, who reeled us in.
I really, really don’t like to iron (and badges need to be ironed, unfortunately), and I am very bad at it. I’m the rare person who prefers the sew-on badges to the iron-on. But I once spent many hours ironing on troop numbers and our council’s name on each of our girls’ Girl Scout Brownie sashes to get them ready for their bridging ceremony. The sashes were the first—and probably the last—things I’ve ironed that didn’t look worse after I’d finished. The girls thought I should get a badge for doing it. There is comedy in it all—getting terribly lost, the lice outbreak that resulted in many of our girls taking on a pulled-back, slightly oiled hairstyle indicative of the anti-lice shampoo, the pumpkin patch breakdowns, the cookie selling competitions. But this troop, which started when they were kindergartners and will continue as long as they want (I’m so hoping they’ll have each other through high school), has already become a sisterhood.
Several years into leading the group now, Melissa and Sherry and I have become close too. We are intensely aware of each others’ schedules, trips, obligations, and milestones with our other kids and work and life. We have bounced hundreds of emails among the three of us about permission slips, checks, scheduling, choosing activities, and picking up art supplies. We push ourselves to encourage the girls to make more decisions on their own as they get bigger, to challenge them to try new things. We let them know we are on their side, they are not alone, and we and the other girls are their sisters. My older daughter will bridge from Girl Scout Brownie to Girl Scout Junior this year, and my younger daughter is a Girl Scout Daisy now, so I personally look forward to the years, and moments, ahead.
This book is not a traditional biography. It is a combination of historical stories about Daisy, current experts’ advice and ideas, and my own experiences and inspiration as a Girl Scout. Yes, as a volunteer troop leader, I am, in my early forties, officially a Girl Scout again. Feel free to make fun of that—I’m having a fabulous time. The ten chapters of the book are not from an official Girl Scout list. They are simply what I think about most when I feel inspired by Daisy and her lessons, and see the girls in our troop living her legacy.
Of course, the very existence of Girl Scouts is not the answer to everything. Yet in these crazy, high-tech, yet disconnected times, the simple beliefs and tenets of Girl Scouts give girls a sense of belonging and a beautiful path to follow. The journey begun by Daisy is continued, every day, by these girls. These are the women of our next generation.