Juliette Low possessed a talent that every CEO covets: the ability to identify and hire the right person for the job. Over and over again, Daisy located people with the ideal combination of attributes to help the fledgling Girl Scout organization grow. Among her best picks was Dr. Abby Porter Leland, who served as the third chief executive officer. When she held the job, from 1917 to 1919, her title was National Director. She served only a short time, but an understanding of Dr. Leland’s background makes clear why Daisy thought so highly of her.

Abby Porter Leland was the daughter of Mary E. Lynch Leland and John Porter Leland of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. She was the eldest of five, followed by two sisters and two brothers. Because she was a descendent of Major Moses Porter, Abby Porter Leland was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.[1] Like Daisy, Leland was a lifelong Episcopalian and active in the work of the church.[2] She graduated from the New York State Normal (teachers’) School in 1900. Seeking more education, Leland earned a bachelors degree in 1905 from Barnard College, where she was a member of Pi Beta Phi sorority.[3] Leland received her masters (1906) and her Ph.D. (1911) from Columbia University. In 1911 she published her dissertation, The Educational Theory and Practice of T. H. Green.

Abby Porter Leland--the only photo I can locate of her

Teaching was Abby Leland’s calling. She put down roots in New York while in college her career began there in 1904.[4] She was extremely thoughtful about her pedagogy. In 1908, while teaching at Manhattan Public School No. 169, she published an article in the journal School Work entitled “Composition.” She urged teachers to consider the students first. In the teaching of English composition, spelling, reading, and dictation, “interest is the key-note of success,” Leland insisted. “If the children are not interested, the compositions will invariably be stupid and a bad imitation of the model, with many careless mistakes in punctuation and capitalization. Select something stimulating to write about, a subject that has possibilities and will appeal to the children; if they are not already interested, interest them. Make them think, talk, discuss…a lively discussion is the best cure for indifference.”[5] A focus on children and what makes them happy and engaged rather than blindly following rules was Daisy’s philosophy too.

By 1911 Abby Porter Leland was elevated to assistant principal. In 1913, she was “Elementary Supervisor, New York City Schools.” In that capacity she also taught at the summer school for teachers at West Virginia University and presented a paper there on the moral education of children.[6] Leland became extremely interested in how best to serve New York City’s burgeoning immigrant population and gave great thought to how to assist students as they entered the melting pot of American society. She made headlines in 1916 with a unique experiment in hands-on learning at a “model apartment” in a downtown tenement.

For Dr. Leland, “the aim was to teach simple, practical, comfortable happy home life, and to instill ideals that would tend to raise the standards of living in the neighborhood.” The model apartment was used for a variety of events. Girls used the kitchen to learn how to cook nutritious meals and then invited their mothers to enjoy the food. School nurses taught lessons about hygiene to parents. Pupils were divided by age and grade level for both the teaching and the clubs that met there in the evenings. According to the Atlantic Educational Journal, Leland’s model flat was the only one of its kind in the city. The girls enrolled were underprivileged immigrant and at-risk native-born girls. They learned everything from bed making to “care of plumbing” in the kitchen, and sometimes they stayed afterwards to sing and have fun.[7]  These were lessons in what was known then as “practical citizenship.” Girls learned by doing how to make domestic chores more efficient and thus more fun. This, too, was exactly in line with the mission of Girl Scouting under Daisy Low.

Around this time, Dr. Porter published A City Reader for the Fourth Year. This was an edited compilation of short stories, poems, essays, and paintings.  She explained that such a book was necessary because “the classical literature of England and America does not represent modern industrial conditions. Its traditions are peculiarly those of the Anglo-Saxon race.” Instead, Leland believed that children would more readily embrace a more inclusive literature that spoke to the city in which the child lived and reflected their own experiences. A City Reader for the Fourth Year thus included readings that helped children recognize opportunities and understand their responsibilities while also reflecting their own situations.[8]

Daisy Low chose this reflective, generous, well-connected woman to head the Girl Scouts in August of 1917. It was a critical moment, as the first world war had been raging in Europe for nearly three years. Dr. Porter’s leadership of the Girl Scouts was inventive and crucial to the organization’s wildly successful growth during World War I.

Abby Leland Porter continued her work with the New York City schools after she stepped down from the Girl Scouts in February of 1919. She was a principal until her retirement. She was also a joiner—one who actively did the vital volunteer work in society. For the American Association of University Women (AAUW), she served as chair of her New York chapter’s Committee of Educational Legislation.[9] In 1920 she was a member of the New York Principals Association and was instrumental in introducing “civic literature for the new citizenship courses in 500 elementary public schools.”[10] In 1921 it was her idea to establish a Department of Immigrant Education in the National Education Association.[11] She was the branch secretary for the Girls Friendly Association at Trinity Episcopal Church in 1920, a member of the American Association of School Administrators,  the National Religious Association of New York City, the Women’s University Club, New York Society for the Experimental Study of Education, the National Council on Civil Responsibility, president of the Teachers Club of New York, the New York City branch of the National Council of Women in Education, and the Bronx Day Nursery—and that’s only a partial list.[12]  She died after a long and useful life at age 71, on 24 November 1950—61 years ago this Thanksgiving Day.

So, on this holiday weekend, it seems appropriate to conclude with “Thanksgiving Day,” a poem by the Missouri poet Eugene Field that Dr. Leland included in A City Reader for the Fourth Year. Alongside Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “A Thanksgiving” and Psalm 100, Abby Leland Porter intended “Thanksgiving Day” to suggest the best, most wholesome aspects of her own brand of Christian patriotism.

Pies of pumpkin, apple, mince
Jams and jellies, peach and quince,
Purple grapes and apples red,
Cakes and nuts and gingerbread—
That’s Thanksgiving.

Turkey! Oh, a great big fellow!
Fruits all ripe and rich and mellow.
Everything that’s nice to eat,
More than I can now repeat—
That’s Thanksgiving.

Lots and lots of jolly fun,
Games to play and races run,
All as happy as can be –
For this happiness you can see
Makes Thanksgiving.

We must thank the One who gave
All the good things that we have;
That is why we keep the day
Set aside, our mothers say,
For Thanksgiving.[xiii]


[1]  Sarah Hall Johnston, ed., Lineage Book: National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Vol. XXXVII (Washington, D.C.: DAR, 1914), 292.

[2]  Dora W. Davis, “Week-Day Religious Instruction in New York City,” Religious Education, Vol. 10, no. 6 (December 1915), 562.

[3] “Chapter Letters,” The Arrow, Vol. XXII, no. 4 (July 1906), 266.

[4]  “Dr. Abby Leland, Educator, 71, Dies,” New York Times, 25 November 1950, 11.

[5]  Abby Porter Leland, “Composition,” School Work, Vol. VII, no. 3 (December 1908), 239.

[6]  Program, Proceedings of the 11th Educational Conference, 18-19 July, West Virginia University, 6.

[7]  “Practical Domestic Science: New York Public Schools, Under Direction of Abby Porter Leland, Maintain Two Model Flats,” Atlantic Educational Journal, Vol. XII, no. 1 (September 1916), 28. In this article, Leland was identified as “Principal of Evening School No. 92,” even though her obituary states she was not a principal until 1919. See also “Homemaking Flat of Public School 60, Manhattan,” University of the State of New York Bulletin, No. 612 (1 April 1916), 15-16.

[8] Abby Leland Porter, ed., A City Reader for the Fourth Year (New York: Charles E. Merrill Company, 1916), 3.

[9]   “Reports from the Branches,” Journal of the Association of College Alumnae, Vol. VI, no. 2 (March 1913), 63.

[10]  “Recent Library Visitors,” Municipal Reference Library Notes, Vol. VI, no. 6 (8 October 1919), 45.

[11] “Department of Immigrant Education,” Addresses and Proceedings, 59th Annual Meeting of the National Education Association, Des Moines, 3-8 July 1921, Vol. LIX, p. 460.

[12]  “For Interest in Teaching,” New York Times, 1 June 1923, 12; “Teachers’ Club Will Build a House With Apartments,” New York Times, 13 June 1926, 7; “Dr. Abby Leland, Educator, 71, Dies,” New York Times, 25 November 1950, 11.

[13] Eugene Field’s poem in Porter, ed., A City Reader for the Fourth Year, 40-41. Field is best-remembered today for “Wynken, Blyken, and Nod.”