Women of Vision Wednesday: Juliette Gordon Low
This year, SCAD President and Founder Paula S. Wallace inducted five new women into the Savannah Women of Vision, a program that celebrates key female figures whose ideas, leadership and service have shaped the community of Savannah. This weekly column will attempt to share a little more of the stories behind each of the fifteen women whose gold portraits hang on either side of the Arnold Hall Theater.
Juliette Gordon Low was born in Savannah on October 31, 1860 to a socially and financially elite family. Her father was a cotton plantation owner who believed in Southern secession while her mother was an abolitionist. When Low’s father joined the Confederate Army, her family moved to Illinois until they reunited with Juliette’s father back in Savannah after the war ended.
Juliette went through a series of boarding schools, frustrated by the lack of emphasis on her interest in sports, horses and exploration. Instead, the Virginia Female Institute, the Edgehill School, Miss Emmett’s School and Mesdemoiselles Charbonniers enforced traditional ladylike activities such as drawing, music and etiquette.
When she was 19, Juliette persuaded her mother to support a painting education in New York. Painting was one of the few pastimes appropriate for women that Juliette thought could eventually earn her financial stability and independence.
In 1886, she married William Mackay Low and the relationship started off well, involving traveling and socializing with families in equally high wealth and stature as her husband. However, as the relationship progressed, William began to grow distant, spending more time gambling and hunting. He also began an affair with a mistress and requested a divorce in 1901. Before the proceedings began, he died of a seizure. Juliette discovered that William had altered the will to leave most of his fortune to his mistress and had to negotiate a settlement. She was able to successfully work out a new deal that left her with an annual income and the family’s Savannah Lafayette Ward Estate.
After William’s death, she focused her interest on traveling the world, visiting France, Italy, Egypt and India. She also searched for cures for a hearing condition and ovarian abscesses.
In 1911, she met with Sir Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, which featured fun training preparing boys for the military. The two decided that girls should be given an equal opportunity. They initially formed the Girl Guides, allowing the sisters of Boy Scouts to learn the same skills. As more and more girls joined, Juliette could clearly see they should have their own groups, telephoning a cousin to say, “I’ve got something for the girls of Savanah, and all of America, and all the world, and we’re going to start it tonight!”
She tested out initial groups around her home in London and, after their success, decided to take the idea back to America. On March 12, 1912, she established the first troop of American Girl Guides, which was renamed the Girl Scouts in 1913. Juliette sponsored the development of the organization through her own money and resources.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1923 but chose to keep it secret and continued to focus on her work with the the Girl Scouts. She eventually died on January 17, 1927 but her legacy continued to live through the establishment of the Juliette Low World Friendship Fund that financed projects for Girl Scouts internationally. She was also given a commemorative postage stamp in 1948, was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1979, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2012. Her home in Savannah was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965.
By Elena Burnett