Helen Keller is credited with saying that “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” This certainly applied to Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts of the USA.
As part of the celebration of the one hundredth birthday of the Girl Scouts, the U.S. Mint has issued a commemorative silver dollar inscribed “courage, confidence, character,” which come from the GSUSA mission statement: “We build girls of courage, confidence, and character who make the world a better place.” This blog is the third in my series considering Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low in light of those words. Her character was exceptional, but it was also hard won.
If Helen Keller is correct, then there are three important times of “trial and suffering” in Juliette’s life that strengthened her soul, cleared her vision, inspired her to be ambitious, and ultimately allowed her to achieve success. In her response to her hearing loss, the betrayal of her husband, and the professionalism of the Girl Scouts, one can see her willfully choose to be positive and grow stronger as a result.
Severe earaches that compromised her hearing troubled Juliette Low throughout her childhood. When she was a young adult the treatment of a local physician may have caused her to lose nearly all the hearing in one ear. It is impossible to tell from this many years later what actually occurred, but at the time her parents certainly blamed the doctor. In her wretchedness and pain, Juliette wanted to blame him, too–and she did, for a short while. But she was not much of a grudge-holder. She remained friendly with his family. She did not attempt to destroy his reputation. She did not spend the rest of her life decrying the doctor. Instead, she soldiered on….even when, less than a year later, a piece of wedding rice lodged in the same ear. When it became infected, the hearing loss in that ear was probably complete. She did not blame the physician in that case, either, although she might have had cause.
Juliette Low suffered with deafness for the rest of her life. It is a testimony to her character that she hid her despair –even from those who loved her dearly. She sought cures with stubborn optimism. She made light of her hearing loss, telling jokes about herself and using those jokes to decrease people’s discomfort. In short, although she struggled with this disability every minute of every day for over forty years, Juliette Gordon Low never let it overcome her. It was a badge of honor to keep her sufferings to herself.
When her husband, William Mackay Low, betrayed and deceived her, Juliette could have become bitter, carping, and vindictive–she certainly had good cause. Instead, she decided to be selfless–until the final breaking point, when she stood up for herself and quietly demanded that Low provide for her as law and custom required. Her selflessness was manifest in her generosity: Juliette wanted a divorce in large measure so that her husband could be free to marry his mistress and pursue his happiness. The sort of divorce she sought initially would have allowed the mistress’s name to remain out of the newspapers–why? So that Willy Low’s next marriage would not be compromised by scandal. It may seem odd today to imagine a wife as loyal and loving as Juliette Low responding in such a fashion, but it speaks volumes about her character that she chose the high road, putting recrimination aside and trying to work with him despite her broken heart. In the end, when Willy Low died before the divorce became final, Juliette carried on as his widow. And because she did not stoop to revenge, for the rest of her life she had the balm of a clear conscience.
Juliette Gordon Low founded the Girl Scouts in 1912. By 1920, her organization was thriving, because of her vision and tenacity. In those eight years, Juliette’s wisdom included the training of leaders at every level, leaders who loved Girl Scouting every bit as much as she did, and whose own special skills and talents increased the membership rolls as they spread Girl Scouting across the nation. When, in 1920, there were rumblings from among her closest advisors–in particular a harsh and damning letter from one important leader–Juliette decided to give up her position as president. It was no doubt the hardest decision she ever made. The letter hurt her deeply, but instead of firing that leader, maligning her to the others, or flouncing off in a huff, Juliette Low looked hard at the accusations made against her to see if there was any truth. That is–as we all know–a tremendously difficult thing to do. She saw merit in her leader’s allegations. After all, one of her great geniuses was the ability to chose excellent volunteers and employees. So, with tremendous sorrow but also with a certainty that she was doing the best thing for her beloved Girl Scouting, Juliette Low stepped down as president. Instead, she became known as Founder. She searched herself to discover her passion and found it in international Girl Scouting and Girl Guiding. From 1920 until her death seven years later, Juliette Low dedicated herself to global understanding though Girl Scouting. It turned out to be a vitally important next step for the organization.
Of course, these three examples are not the only moments when we can see Juliette Gordon Low’s character. If you are interested in her life, I might humbly recommend my biography of her if you have not yet read it: Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts. I remain convinced that she was a woman of rare character, who usually put the welfare and comfort of others above her own, who almost always looked on the bright side, and who valued determination, a cheery outlook, and a kind-hearted response to life. That is why I find it altogether appropriate that the organization she created should encapsulate its mission in three adjectives that so perfectly describe its Founder.
Photos of Low used gratefully with the permission of the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace.