Friday, November 23, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Juliette Low's 1924 Girl Scouts speech

2012 is the "year of the girl," marking the centenary of Juliette "Daisy" Gordon Low's 1912 founding of the Girl Scouts in the United States, a group that has grown in this country from 18 original scouts to more than 3.2 million girls and adults, with more than 59 million alumnae, myself included.

Speeches--or the records of speeches--by the founder are not as numerous as scouts are. However, notes from a speech Low gave at Mercer College in Georgia in 1924 do survive at the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah, where the Gordon family papers are kept. Coming a dozen years after she founded the first troop, inspired by Britain's Girl Guides, this speech was part of a continued effort to explain and advance the fledgling movement, and to keep its U.S. branch from veering too far from the international standards of scouting.

While the words "The Girl Scout activities are purely feminine" jump up to challenge modern eyes reading these notes, a deeper dig suggests that Low may have been attempting to answer those who might complain about young ladies engaging in projects related to housework, physical activity, outdoor adventures and other facets of the new program. Ahead of her time, she was urging careers for young women at a time when those were still a novelty. From the notes:
Scouting is the cradle of careers. It is where careers are born. For instance, a girl tries bandaging. She find she likes Red Cross work and she decides to study seriously and become a Hospital Nurse. Or, she is expert in signaling and the Morse code leads to her becoming--a Telegraph Operator. Or she goes in for social service and gets a Government job.
Today, Girl Scout cadettes may earn
a public speaking badge.

Scouting was founded before women had the vote in the U.S., but as this speech occurred just a few years after women won the right to vote nationally in 1920, Low speaks of the requirements for "citizen scouts" to learn "health, a vocation and a knowledge of the National and Local Government," including community service and voting once the Scout reaches voting age to show "she is a useful and worthy member of her community."

Herself physically active, Low's skills included "standing on her head. Once, she even stood on her head in the board room at National Headquarters to show off the new Girl Scout shoes," certainly a presentation skill that would make anyone stand out.

This dynamic speaker was not without her challenges. She was mostly deaf by her 20s, and had developed breast cancer the year before giving this speech, although she did not disclose her illness. According to the Girl Scouts' biography of Low, "Girl Scouting welcomed girls with disabilities at a time when they were excluded from many other activities. This idea seemed quite natural to Juliette, who never let deafness, back problems or cancer keep her from full participation in life." Low died in 1927.  Here's what you can learn from this famous speech:
  • Don't toss your text: The more I write Famous Speech Friday posts, the more I wish women would preserve their speeches: in text, audio, and video, and in published places where anyone may access their words. In this case, the Low family papers' donation to the historical society--and someone's instinct not to toss a bunch of speech notes--are the reasons we can read about this one speech 100 years later. What are you doing to preserve your speeches? Hint: As historians will tell you, your judgment today about whether a speech is worth saving is not what's important. Save the speech and let history judge. If you're annoyed by the lack of women to quote in your speeches, keep in mind that we need to save women's words if we're going to use them later.
  • Use your speeches to challenge assumptions: One way to grab your audience's attention in a speech is to use your time to redefine assumptions and put forward ideas that challenge the status quo. Here, Low continually describes active, engaged and even political roles for young women at a time when most of society did not encourage such behavior. By taking the long view and pushing for advancement for girls, Low was sowing seeds that have grown and borne fruit a century later in ways she could not have envisioned in 1924.
  • Don't stop speaking about your movement: This speech takes place a dozen years after Low began the Girl Scouts, yet here she is in her home state, convincing another audience about its merits. If you're leading a movement, your speaking can't stop a couple of years in. Audiences change, move, and grow, and society changes its views. If you're not represented in the public forum, your movement may get stalled. Low's persistence in speaking about the movement kept it alive in this way. 
Below is a video about Low, issued when she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom earlier this year. I'm very grateful to Suzanne Harper of the Girl Scouts of the United States for pointing me to the resources that led to this post!

(Photo courtesy of the Girl Scouts of the United States. About the photo: "One of JGL’s favorite portraits, it was used in October 1924 issue of the American Girl magazine with The Founder’s birthday message.")