I’ve had a thing for olden-day girls ever since I read my first Little House on the Prairie book—the bonnets, the corncob dolls, the maple syrup candy! One thing I learned at Smith—and something that probably had the biggest impact on my life—was the realization that my interest translated into real history—the history of women and girls. I could take entire classes on—and get credit for learning about—olden girls. (Thank you Professor Horowitz! Thank you Professor Van Dyne!)
I now write and edit children’s books, many of which are about brave women and girls in history. You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer! is about Amelia Bloomer, an early women’s rights activist who gave bloomers their name, and Players in Pigtails is about the real-life All American Girls Professional Baseball League, inspired by the fictional Katie Casey, a baseball-loving young woman mentioned in the classic song, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” written in 1908.
My new book, Here Come the Girl Scouts! The Amazing All-true Story of Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low and Her Great Adventure, is also rooted in women’s history and tells the story of Girl Scouts founder Daisy Low and the first Girl Scout troop, which was formed in 1912.
This book was also inspired by my mother, who is from Savannah, Georgia, the city where the Girl Scouts was founded, and where I was born. I grew up hearing my mother’s stories about being a Girl Scout in the early 1960s, watching her home movies of Savannah’s Girl Scout parades, and admiring the badge sash that she kept folded in her top dresser drawer.
I started researching the Girl Scouts when I learned that the organization would be celebrating its 100th anniversary in the spring of 2012, and the more I read, the more I fell in love with Daisy Low’s quirkiness and gumption—and the more I wanted to share her story with girls today. I was also completely bowled over—and to be honest, surprised—to learn that the Girl Scouts were wonderfully ahead of their time. The early Girl Scouts went camping and hiking, and they played basketball with a canvas curtain strung up around their court so passersby couldn’t get a peek at their legs. What’s not to love?
Even in 1912, the Girl Scouts were focused on encouraging girls to get outside and be active and appreciate nature. In fact, the first Girl Scouts handbook reads as if it could have been written today: “We walk too little in America.” “Every time we show our courage it grows.” I’ve tried to weave some of these quotes into my story.
The Girl Scouts also encouraged girls to learn how to support themselves, and gave example after example of women who were doing just that. Instead of telling them how to be proper young ladies, Low told the Girl Scouts that they could be architects or airplane pilots and that they could and should make a difference in the world. At a time when social classes weren’t encouraged to mix, the Girl Scouts actively recruited members from private schools, synagogues, orphanages, factories, and shops.
I was fascinated by the idea that an aristocratic Southern woman circa 1912 could start an organization that was so forward thinking, and I loved that Low had enough confidence to do it even though the odds were against her. She lost almost all of her hearing as a young woman. In 1912, she was 51 years old and had spent years in a miserable marriage that left her feeling useless. Yet by sheer force of will she was able to found an organization that has affected millions of girls and young women the world over. I find that very inspiring.
Researching this book was filled with serendipitous moments. I was reading a biography of Low on a crowded subway one morning, when the woman sitting next me looked over and said, “Oh, Daisy Low; I’m friends with her great-niece.” She then kindly put me in touch with Low’s great-niece Margaret, who, as it turned out, lives just a few blocks from me in Brooklyn, New York.
The highlight of writing this book came one morning as I turned on my computer and found an email from one of my personal heroes, Gloria Steinem ’56. She had been a Girl Scout and sent me an incredibly generous and powerful essay about what the Girl Scouts meant to her, ending with, “We all have a place at the campfire. It was the Girl Scouts who taught me that first.” I think that perfectly sums up what the Girl Scouts are about, and I’m excited to share their story with girls today.