Juliette Low: Feminist Warrior

When I was in college, I used to get drunk on cheap vodka with some of my friends from band (add another layer of nerd to my profile: band geek) and watch a fantastic independent film called Love and Other Catastrophes. Please go rent it right now, because it’s HILARIOUS. One of the characters in the movie was working on her thesis, entitled “Doris Day as Feminist Warrior.” Which, is just really really funny to a women’s studies student, because, have you seen Pillow Talk? But the phrase “feminist warrior” has stuck with me over the years and I have often thought about how fun it would be to write a dissertation on different women from Hollywood or history in which I explained why they are, despite all appearances, a feminist warrior. Marilyn Monroe is on that list.

But today, I’m going to tell you about someone who is so obviously a feminist warrior, it’s not actually funny. And that person is Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of Girl Scouts. I am a lifetime member of Girl Scouts (add another layer of nerd to my profile) and it’s an awesome organization and not homophobic like the Boy Scouts are. (Gay men are not pedophiles. Stop being assholes, Boy Scouts of America, and let them be troop leaders.) I am such a big Girl Scout person, I even read the extremely boring official biography of Juliette Gordon Low, Lady From Savannah. And because I love you guys, I’m gonna write about her for you, Drunk History style, just like I did with our pal Julia Ward Howe.

OK, so, Juliette was from Savannah, and she was born just before the Civil War, and her family was pretty rich, which means they owned slaves and her dad fought on the Confederate side of the Civil War–although, her mom was from Chicago and was anti-slavery, so her mom hung out with General Sherman. I know for some of you, you’ll hear “Confederate slave-owning family” and you’re just gonna be “That’s it, I’m out.” I respect that, because I’m a white girl and I don’t pretend to get what it is to be black and live in a country that is still super racist and where so many of our historical figures were slave owners. But seriously, you’re about to miss out on hearing about someone who turned out to be pretty awesome in spite of the circumstances of her birth into a suuuuper racist society. The rest of you, here we go.

Juliette’s nickname was Daisy, and like a lot of these women from that era who went on to do fabulous things, she was super precocious. Daisy got some childhood illness that left her mostly deaf in one ear–and all the crazy stuff doctors tried to do to fix it just made it worse. She also liked to do stuff like make clothes for poor people and take in stray cats like a crazy cat lady.

Daisy grew up and at age 26 (which was pretty old by 1880’s standards) she got married to William Mackay Low. Here’s where it gets really crazy: when people were throwing rice at the happy couple after the ceremony, a piece of it got stuck in her ear and it got infected and she lost her hearing in THAT ear too, so she spent most of the rest of her life mostly deaf. Anytime someone tries to act like people with disabilities can’t do awesome things, you tell them “FUCK YOU ASSHOLE. Juliette Low founded Girl Scouts, and she was mostly deaf.” Also: if you go to a wedding where the bride is a Girl Scout, do not expect there to be hard shit like rice or bird seed to be thrown at the couple, because we don’t want to accidentally go deaf. Live and learn, people.

So, there’s Daisy, just like our pal Julia, married and rich and you’re supposed to live happily ever after, right? Hahahaha, no. Willy (that was his nickname, I am not even making that up) and Daisy had marital trouble for quite a while. At one point, Daisy came home from a trip and found Willy with his mistress living in Daisy’s house, and Daisy had to go live in the servant quarters because Willy was all “I’m the man, do what I say.” They spent the next several years trying to sort out the divorce, because it wasn’t as simple back then. You couldn’t just go to the courthouse and say “My husband is fucking this other woman and I have to live in the servant quarters, so, I’m done here” like you can now. It was a huge deal to get divorced. In fact, it was so difficult that eventually Willy died before the divorce was done. And just like Julia, her asshole of a husband left Daisy almost no money (she had to sue to get her house in Savannah because that asshole Willy tried to leave it to his mistress), but at least she was free.

Daisy traveled a lot, and she got to be friends with Lord and Lady Baden Powell, an English couple who could tell that World War I was coming and thought “Let’s start training the kids in our country to be army scouts and nurses, because, we’re really gonna need some of those here in a minute when this war starts.” So, they founded Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, and the boys learned stuff like semaphore and the girls learned how to roll bandages and do first aid. Daisy was like, “Dude, great idea, but how come the girls gotta be nurses? Why can’t they be scouts like the boys?” So she came home to Savannah and said, “Imma teach these girls morse code and how to build a fire” and she started the very first Girl Scout troop on March 12, 1912.

If you want to know what it was like to be a Girl Scout back then, check out The Golden Eaglet, a silent recruiting film from 1917. Daisy didn’t fuck around thinking girls needed to be coddled and protected. To hell with that. She wanted her Girl Scouts to be badasses, because being a badass is fun. And they were badasses and they did have fun…and they still are and do. When I worked at a Girl Scout camp, I taught girls how to wield an axe. I can start a fire with one match and no paper. And more than that, Girl Scouts taught me how to lead. You need a tough job done right? Ask a Girl Scout. Daisy created an organization that teaches girls to dream big AND gives them the skills they need to make those dreams a reality. What could be more feminist than that?

Why am I writing about Daisy today? Well, it’s her birthday. That’s right, she was born on Halloween, and today is her 153rd birthday. So, if you know a Girl Scout, don’t say “Happy Halloween” to them. Tell them “Happy Birthday to your founder, Juliette Low, Feminist Warrior!”

Who’s That Lady?

A few folks have asked me who that dour looking woman is here on this blog. She’s one of my personal heroes, Julia Ward Howe. The Indigo Girls (who I discovered at Girl Scout camp as a teenager) have a song called Virginia Woolf about becoming a friend of Woolf’s through the pages of her books. I feel that way about Julia Ward Howe. I think if she was alive today, she and I would have a laugh and a cry together about motherhood and writing and balancing family and work. That is to say, I think she’s one of us, and I’d like to introduce you all to her, Drunk History style, except I happen to be sober right now (alas).

Julia (we’re old friends, so I am allowed to call her by her first name) was born in 1819 into an affluent family in New York. Her mom died when she was very young, and so she was raised by her extremely overbearing dad who didn’t let her go to parties or meet people. She was a total brainiac, and read EVERYTHING, and was super serious about learning and writing, even as a child. Eventually her dad died, which meant she was free to go out and meet people and find herself a husband. And she did: Samuel Gridley Howe, a social reformer who ran a school for the blind outside of Boston. Everyone called him The Chevalier, or Chev for short, even Julia.

Now, the problem with fairy tales is that they end with the happy couple getting married, and they don’t show what happens AFTER the honeymoon. In real life, a lot of people don’t live happily ever after, and in Julia’s case, man, was there a lot of drama in that marriage. It turned out she had married a guy as overbearing as her father, who didn’t want her to have any kind of public life or be a writer–he wanted her to only run the household, and be completely dedicated to their children, and that’s it, nothing else. This was Cult of True Womanhood time, and Chev wanted his wife to be a True Woman all the way. Living so far outside Boston, she rarely got to hang out with friends or go out to dinner or the opera or do much of anything, other than run her household and watch her children. It didn’t take long for her to get really sick of having no outlet for that giant brain of hers.

So she started writing poetry about how shitty it was being stuck out in the country with a bunch of little kids and no adults to talk to but her overbearing husband. And THEN she got the poetry published, anonymously but EVERYONE knew it was her. Chev was super embarrassed, AND pissed, and he told her to stop writing. And she told him she’d be more domestic and compliant, but she was like, “Whatever, I am going to keep on writing, good luck trying to stop me.” And she wrote more angsty poetry that she had published that pissed Chev off and he yelled at her some more. And she cried a lot and felt hurt and frustrated, because it’s not easy being a writer in 1850 when your husband, who you love, wants you to have no life beyond raising your kids and running your household.

And then she wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and got suuuuuuuper famous, and she published more and made a lot of speeches and tried to change the world and get women the vote and stop war from happening. And Chev got more pissed, and sometimes her kids took Chev’s side and yelled at her too, and she still said, “Whatever, this is who I am, I can’t change who I am.” And she kept on writing and making speeches and just doing Julia as best she could. Then Chev died, and she didn’t have to balance pleasing her husband and being domestic, with writing and speaking and trying to change the world.

Julia is also famous for kind-of inventing Mother’s Day. But not like Mother’s Day that we celebrate today. She wanted moms to take a day away from their regular domestic chores to come together to talk about how to make the world a better place for their children. She was an idealist, and believed in the power of motherhood to work as a positive force in the world, that moms working together could make the world a better place. I believe that too.

Reading Julia’s letters and poems, what strikes me is how honest she was about how she felt and what was happening in her life, AND how relevant her writings still are 150 years later. I know so many women who struggle with being their own person and also being a good mom. They feel guilty for taking time away from their children to have a career or even hobbies or other activities that aren’t directly related to their children. Being a parent DOES mean making choices and doing stuff you’d rather not. But if they give up those outside activities, then they feel bored, or worse, like they have lost who they are. As Julia said, “In giving life to others, do we lose our own vitality and sink into dimness, nothingness, a living death?”

Julia didn’t find escaping the Cult of True Womanhood any easier than it is for us to escape the Cult of Perfect Motherhood today. It came with tears and arguments and feeling like everyone around her was judging her for not being what the world told her she should be. But she fought against the cult anyway, and she found satisfaction in being both a mother AND a fully realized human being. She’s an inspiration to me and I wish I could have met her in person instead of through her writings. I like to think that wherever she is now, she’s reading this blog and saying “Rock on sister!”