The 99th anniversary of the Girl Scouts of the United States of America will be celebrated tomorrow, March 12, 2011. Juliette Gordon Low, the founder, used to tell self-effacing stories about the beginnings of Girl Scouting, accenting how surprised she was that it caught on as rapidly as it did.

As her biographer, I have learned to see past her humility. Juliette Gordon Low was in fact a savvy entrepreneur, possessing most of the characteristics that we would today consider essential for anyone starting their own business or organization. She was a visionary and a risk-taker.

Case in point:  Radio Girl Scouts.

In 1924, Low wrote Laura Peirce Holland, Director of the Western Pennsylvania Girl Scout Council, to inquire about her Radio Scouts. An enthusiastic letter from Holland described the fledgling program which began when one of the nation’s very first commercial radio stations, KDKA of Pittsburgh, asked her to come to their studio to tell listeners something about her Girl Scout troop.

An experienced leader, Holland began with “a series of talks on Camp life.” This was so well received by KDKA and by local girls that Laura Peirce Holland “thought what fun a Radio Troop would be.” When she suggested it over the airwaves, excited girls inundated KDKA with letters clamoring for her to begin.

Radio meetings soon followed. Holland, a Wellesley College graduate, explained to Juliette Low that radio meetings opened with whistle signals and the recitation of the Girl Scout Promise and Laws. After announcements, the work of Girl Scouting commenced. Holland attested to the thoroughness with which they covered knot tying, “First Aid, Fire Prevention, Compass, Flag History, Table Setting and Serving a Meal,” for example.

The Girl Scouting emphasis on fun was not slighted either. Holland’s broadcasts included games and stories which always brought flurries of happy letters. She recruited troops of girls to lead sing-alongs as Radio Girl Scouts joined in at home.

Each girl who passed Tenderfoot registered with National Headquarters as a Lone Scout, and when enough Lone Scouts appeared in a community, Holland made sure they found a leader and formed a traditional troop. “We only enroll in the Radio Troop Scouts from localities where no other Scout troop exists,” she maintained. Girls from isolated ranching, mining, and farming communities wrote nearly two thousand notes to Holland, who told Juliette Low proudly that there were almost 600 official Radio Scouts “from forty States and four Provinces of Canada.”

Radio Scouting was brand-new because commercial radio was less than four years old in 1924. Juliette Low could have shied away from this radical and untried method of including girls. She could have said no because she had little control over Laura Peirce Holland in Pittsburgh. Who knew how many Lone Scouts the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. could sustain?

Instead, Juliette Gordon Low saw the potential of radio for her fledgling organization. She appreciated the technology, supported Holland’s initiative, and decided the risks were worth it. Low’s openness to innovation–even when the idea did not originate with her–was one of the qualities that made her a visionary leader.

Laura Peirce Holland to Juliette Gordon Low, 11 June 1924, File:  Low, Juliette Gordon–Correspondence–1924, National Historic Preservation Center, New York City.
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