Adventures in Feministory: Juliette Gordon Low, Founder of Girl Scouts, Disabled Activist

Juliette Gordon Low, in black and white in a fancy Girl Scout uniform

In honor of the recent wave of support for transgender inclusion in the Girl Scouts, let’s delve into the history of Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low. You might know her for leading a life of activism and creating opportunities for women, but did you know she spent the majority of her life with severely impaired hearing? Although trans activism like the recent support for the GSUSA cookie drive most likely was not on Gordon Low’s radar, she fought for the inclusion of girls of all abilities in the Girl Scouts of USA.

Born in 1860 in Savannah, Georgia to a Confederate captain and the daughter of one of the first settlers of Chicago, Juliette Gordon Low enjoyed a life full of restless activity and opportunity. She headed the rowing team as a girl, loved tennis, painted, sculpted, wrote plays, and became notorious for her ability to stand on her head. Once she reached the appropriate age, she went off to the prestigious Virginia Female Institute boarding school, and then capped off her education at the Mesdemoiselles Charbonniers, a French finishing school in New York City. Not too shabby, Gordon Low.

In her young adulthood Juliette Gordon Low suffered from chronic ear infections, and an experimental procedure left her with significantly impaired hearing in one ear. Then, on the day of her wedding, a well-wisher accidentally threw a grain of good-luck rice into Gordon Low’s ear canal. When the doctor attempted to remove the grain, he accidentally ruptured Gordon Low’s eardrum, causing her to lose all of her hearing in the other ear.

The foundation for the Girl Scouts likely came from Gordon Low’s active role in the Spanish-American War. Along with her mother, she founded a convalescent home for soldiers returning home from the war. After her husband died (but not before attempting to divorce her, and then leaving the vast majority of his earnings to his mistress—he sounds like kind of a douche), she spent several years looking for a worthy cause to support. An encounter with the founder of the Boy Scouts enchanted her with the burgeoning youth movement, and in 1912 she organized the first two troops of what would become the Girl Scouts.

Keeping in mind her own disability, Juliette Gordon Low attempted to include girls of all abilities in her Girl Scouts. While the organization took the unfortunate tactic of sometimes creating separate troops for differently abled girls, their efforts toward inclusion differ from their brother organization even to this day. Gordon Low’s Girl Scouts welcomed troop leaders with disabilities, and created manuals for activities and opportunities for disabled Scouts.

The Disabilities Studies blog points out that the Girl Scouts still retains some regressive tactics—including WTF-inducing disability simulations—but that their policies set them apart from many other, less inclusive youth organizations. Even after all this time, Juliette Gordon Low still strikes an impressive figure, and one who fought for girls of all abilities.

Previously: Assia Djebar, Vi Subversa

October 31, 2013: Look! Juliette Gordon Low is now on an Adventures in Feministory coffee mug, illustrated by Bitch co-founder Andi Zeisler! Get yours today for only $12.95

by Mac Pogue
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