Juliette Gordon was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1860. She was the second of six children and nicknamed “Daisy.” Her father, William Washington Gordon II, was a cotton broker. Her mother, Nellie Kinzie, was a writer whose family actually played a role in the founding of Chicago.
When she was six months old her father joined the Confederate States Army to fight in the Civil War. The war was being fought dangerously close to their plantation so her mother took her and her two sisters to Thunderbolt, Georgia, for safety. In 1865 the family relocated to Chicago where Juliette became very ill with brain fever. She recovered but from that time on she was prone to accidents and illnesses, with frequent ear aches and bouts of malaria. She always had ear trouble as a result of frequent infections and the hearing in one ear was greatly compromised. Ironically, when she married years later, a grain of rice that was tossed lodged in her other ear and caused an infection. Treatment back then was crude and bordered on barbaric and destroyed the hearing in that ear as well. She struggled with deafness for the rest of her life.
She was raised with traditional Southern values with emphasis on duty, obedience, loyalty and respect. At the age of 12 she began attending boarding schools, including Miss Emmett’s school in New Jersey and the Virginia Female Institute, the Edgehill School and Mademoiselles Charbonniers French finishing School in New York.
Daisy spent more time in the pursuit of art and poetry than on her schoolwork. She wrote and performed plays, started a newspaper with her cousins. Together they also formed a club with the goal of helping others. The Helpful Hands Club, where they taught sewing and they made clothes for some of the poorer immigrant families. Her cousin Caroline said “While you never knew what she would do next, she always did what she made up her mind to do."
While at the Edgehill School she joined a secret group based on the sorority Theta Tau, where they held meetings and earned badges. After she finished school in 1880 she attend an art school in New York, taking painting lessons fro Robert Walter Weir, a prominent landscape painter of the time.
She was eccentric and adventurous coming from a long line of spirited women who were bound by duty but absolutely determined to forge their own paths. She was very close to her older sister, Alice, who died when Daisy was 20, leaving her to assume household duties because her mother was grieving.
She was forced to grow up quickly. It was during this time that she met and fell madly in love with a handsome, rakish ne’er-do-well, William Mackay Low, son of family friends who was home during a break from his studies at Oxford. They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and in this case it was true. When William returned to England Daisy’s love was heightened for him. Her mother was adamant in her disapproval for so many reasons but Daisy would not be dissuaded, she loved William. They married in 1886 and settled in England.
William was somewhat embarrassed by Daisy’s awkwardness and extremely fond of drinking, gambling, horses and high society. He rather neglected his young wife and spent precious little time with her, preferring the company of other women. They never had children.
Daisy found that she was quite depressed due to long separations from William and his galavanting and paying little if any attention to her. She decided the best way to fight the depression was to say busy. She painted, learned how to work with wood and metal, forging a pair of iron gates for her home. She did charitable work and joined a local nursing association that helped feed and clothe local poor families.
Early in the 1900’s she endured a long and bitter divorce that had not been finalized before William succumbed to a stroke. Upon his death, Daisy discovered that he had left everything to his mistress! She decided to contest the will and with the loving support of her sisters, she eventually won, but the effort was very expensive and took great toll on her. She never married again.
In 1911 she met Sir Robert Baden-Powell, who had just launched a wonderful outdoor leadership program for boys. She embraced the idea of this program and was quite impressed with the Boy Scouts. It emphasized preparedness and fun. Robert’s sister Agnes, had begun a similar program for girls, called the Girl Guides, and later that summer Daisy formed her own Girl Guides troop in Scotland, where she was now living.
She was so energized with this little troop that she returned home to Savannah in the early spring of 1912 and registered the first troop of 18 Girl Guides. Her first Guide was her niece and namesake, Margaret “daisy Doots” Gordon. The Girl Scouts of America was born.
Daisy had been spurned in love and was divorced, middle aged and deaf. She might have chosen to simply return to her family estate and live out her years in luxury. Instead, she channeled her considerable energy and drive into an organization that would help young girls find their own way in life and fostered independence. She founded the Girl Scouts of America and over the past 100 plus years, her girls have become TV anchors, senators, astronauts and even Supreme Court Justices among other high-profile careers.