Clara Lisetor-Lane and the Girl Scouts of America

Please, never, ever, say “Girl Scouts of America” in front of me. Just don’t.

Why? BECAUSE IT IS WRONG. It falls on my editor-ears like nails on a blackboard.

I am a proud, lifetime member of the Girl Scouts of the USA, not some rogue “Girl Scouts of America” group. If you want to be ultra correct, it is Girl Scouts of the United States of America. That is the name printed on our Congressional Charter.

Cover of Leader Magazine, October 1950

Prior to that document, the formal name was “Girl Scouts, Inc.” That name was used when the movement incorporated in Washington, DC, in 1915. That’s how it appeared on early versions of the Girl Scout Constitution and By-Laws. That’s how it appeared on letterhead.

Letterhead from 1944

Actually some letterhead from the 1940s uses “GSUSA.” Perhaps that was purchased in advance of the charter announcement?

Please, be accurate. You’d get testy too if someone constantly got your name wrong.

But there’s another, even more important reason. There really was an actual “Girl Scouts of America.”

Journalist Clara Lisetor-Lane insisted that she had created the “Girl Scouts of America” in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1910; two years before Juliette Gordon Low’s first troop in Savannah.

Lisetor-Lane seemed to prefer working on publicity rather than recruitment. Newspapers of the era report her arrival in towns to organize troops, but no membership numbers were given.

Her program would encourage housekeeping and the outdoors. But some behavior was decidedly not for her Girl Scouts:

Sacramento Star, August 11, 1911.

In June 1911, her Girl Scouts of America, a few self-described “Girl Guides” and the Camp Fire Girls merged to become “Girl Pioneers of America.” The thoroughness of that merger is unclear; reports of the component organizations continued into 1912.

Excerpt from Chicago Tribune, April 29, 1924

Lisetor-Lane eventually took up other causes. She founded “Crusaders for Decency,” group that promoted “clean literature and films.”

But she never renounced her claim to starting the Girl Scouts.

Lisetor-Lane even crashed the 1924 Girl Scout national convention and challenged Low to met with her. (She didn’t.)

Lisetor-Lane went to her grave in 1960 insisting that Juliette Gordon Low had stolen her idea.

When the Girl Scouts of the USA celebrated its 50th birthday in 1962, the story of Clara Lisetor-Lane was revived in her home town. A few former members came forward and a Des Moines Register article was picked up by other newspapers.

Although Clara certainly would have been pleased by the renewed interest in her organization, I can only imagine her horror if she had seen how it appeared in the Moline, IL, Dispatch.

©2020 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian

We Are Girl Scouts of the USA!

Juliette Gordon Low in 1923.

Juliette Gordon Low in 1923.


Today Girl Scouts celebrate their 102nd birthday. As a gift to our founder, Juliette Gordon Low, let’s resolve to call our movement by its correct name: Girl Scouts of the United States of America.

Because the Boy Scouts, a slightly older organization, are the “Boy Scouts of America” people assume that the Girl Scouts dutifully followed down the same footpath. If the boys are the BSA, then the girls must be GSA. Right? Wrong!

What’s in a Name?

Juliette Gordon Low fought hard for the right to use the name “Girl Scouts.” Lord Baden Powell, who founded the Boy Scouts, insisted the “scout” label was for boys only. He decreed that their sisters would be known as Girl Guides. Low called her first troops in the United States Girl Guides as well, but the girls declared that they wanted to be Scouts. She followed their lead and defended their choice.

Other groups staked claim to the scout name. Clara A. Lisetor-Lane organized a group called Girl Scouts of America in 1910, but it failed to gain a national following. That didn’t stop Lisetor-Lane from accusing Low of stealing her idea.

Rival claim from the Girl Scouts of America

Rival claim from the Girl Scouts of America

The biggest objection came from the Boy Scouts. BSA Chief James E. West was openly hostile to the notion of girls calling themselves Scouts, saying they “trivialized” and “sissified” the term. He helped launch the Camp Fire Girls as an alternative organization and threatened to sue Low for using the name “Scouts.”

Girl Scout leaders argued that they had an equal right to the name, especially after women won the right to vote in 1920. As national board member Caroline Slade explained,

Now that full citizenship has been extended to the women of this state, it seems to me essential that as girls they should learn that their responsibility for their country is equally as great as, if somewhat different from, that of the boys, and I believe there is no better way for them to learn to become good citizens than to learn to become the best kind of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

Remember US

The difference between GSUSA and BSA is easy to remember: US.

The Boy Scouts have a long history of fighting to keep specific groups of people out of Scouting. At one time, that included girls and women—us.

Juliette Gordon Low and the other women who established Girl Scouting fought to give us an equal role as citizens of the United States, an equal responsibility to shape our futures, an equal opportunity to be self-sufficient, and an equal dose of “wholesome pleasures” such as camping, singing, and public service.

On this Girl Scout birthday, don’t forget to put the US in GSUSA to thank our past leaders for give US a place in Scouting.