Looking Back, Moving Forward at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace

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It’s not all uniforms and cookies — not by a long shot. In fact, the Girl Scouts organization, with its 2.6 million active members, focuses on giving young women the tools to be leaders, and its roots are right here in Savannah on the corner of Oglethorpe and Bull. 

The Girl Scouts was born in the house where the movement’s founder, Juliette Gordon Low, grew up and returned to throughout her life — via a 1912 telephone call from Low to her cousin, Nina Pape. This summer, the Girl Scouts announced plans for a major renovation of the birthplace, one that honors Low’s vision while speaking to the growing needs of the organization.

When Girl Scouts of the USA bought the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace in 1953, it was always with the idea that the home should grow with the needs of modern girls. Today the house serves as a hub for hands-on history and history in the making. Executive Director Lisa Junkin Lopez explains “We’ve worked hard to ensure our Girl Scout tours are not just docent-led one-hour lectures, because it turns out that’s not an effective strategy for learning with young people.” Instead, visiting Girl Scouts are motivated by action. When Junkin Lopez recently asked a group of Girl Scouts why they were visiting the house, they replied that Low changed the world, and they wanted to change the world too. 

The dedication ceremony for the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, October 1956. Photography courtesy collection of Girl Scouts of the USA. Used by permission.

In the spirit of hands-on learning, groups of Girl Scouts are led into the home’s parlor room where Low and her siblings played a Victorian game called tableau vivant — they would dress in fancy costumes and enact a scene from a play or a famous artwork as entertainment for family and guests. Today, Girl Scouts are given moments from Low’s life to freeze frame for their peers to guess. According to Junkin Lopez, “We do things like that to enliven the experience, use multiple senses and make sure we’re engaging kids where they are.” There are art lessons based on portraits of Low, too, that teach visual literacy — a necessary skill in our ever-more-visual world.  

Across every activity and function, one of the focuses of the Birthplace is the notion of fun — after all, Low herself was known to stand on her head during conversations and to draw engrossed Girl Scouts into complex knot-tying challenges during teatime. 

By 1912, Low had experienced significant hearing loss as a result of several illnesses and accidents throughout her life; her husband had divorced her, 

died and bequeathed most of his fortune to his mistress. (Low’s sisters contested the will on her behalf, and she received some compensation as a result.) By all accounts, Low never lost her sense of humor; she simply became determined to help girls in varied circumstances reach their full potential and have fun along the way. While parameters have changed over the course of a century, the spirit of her goals has not. 

Girl Scouts enjoy the interactive Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace library. Photography courtesy collection of Girl Scouts of the USA. Used by permission.

Now, as ever, the Girl Scouts remains focused on outdoor leadership and adventures. The organization also does an impressive amount of work around STEM and STEAM as it empowers leadership among young women. “Early Girl Scouting,” Junkin Lopez explains, “was all about fun as well as putting girls in spaces where they could test themselves, take risks and become leaders. For Low, spending time outdoors was a huge piece of that puzzle, as it is for Girl Scouting today. I think part of it is about finding independence and having a chance to test your own mettle.”

Low’s legacy is a movement in which all girls are able to push themselves. Though the laws of the Jim Crow-era South kept troops segregated until the 1950s, the Girl Scouts pushed hard to integrate well before many other organizations were willing to do so. Girl Scout style has even changed over the years to reflect its inclusive mission: while Low designed the original Girl Scout membership pin with three leaves representing the Girl Scout promise, in 1978 an updated membership pin designed by Saul Bass “speaks to Girl Scouts as an inclusive organization for all girls,” says Junkin Lopez. The iconic design features three women’s profiles embedded within the trefoil and was put into place three years after Gloria D. Scott became the first African-American national president of Girl Scouts.

In the Reimagined Library — the last stop on the tour — a young Girl Scout’s eyes go wide behind hot-pink eyeglasses as she runs to the activity table. She pops on a pair of headphones at one of the iPad stations and within seconds is watching video clips of women and girls around the world performing speeches, stories and songs. Other girls move to the Write a Poem, Take a Poem station where they compose a poem, leave it in a box for another Girl Scout and take another poem home for themselves. Still others view historic photos through antique stereoscopes, or flock to library shelves where they can thumb through books for, by and about girls and women. “We’ve made ‘a room of her own’,” says Junkin Lopez, “and it sits well with our visitors. This place is a testament to Low’s legacy as an innovator and change-maker.”