By Sally Griffin
P.E.O. is one of the oldest women’s organizations in North America. According to Chapter President Kris Call and Sister Rhonda Johannes, two members of one of the chapters in Wheat Ridge, several women at Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, were not accepted into a sorority and decided to form their own “sisterhood.” They decided that their sisterhood would work to support women in higher education.
This was not an easy feat in post-civil war America, but they decided that they should be, according to Call and Johannes, a group of “Women helping Women Reach for the Stars.”
Since it’s start, P.E.O. has become one of the largest nonsectarian, community-based organizations in the U.S. and Canada, with nearly 6,000 chapters and almost 250,000 members. P.E.O. has chapters in each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia and in six Canadian provinces. It was kind of a secret sisterhood that evolved to become broader and more diverse.
“It is not that big of a secret anymore,” Call said. Yet some of the secrets still remain for members only, including the true meaning of the initials, P.E.O. On their website and in their brochure, the initials stand for Philanthropic Educational Organization, but the website hints that there is also another meaning for P.E.O. that is known only to members.
The mission of P.E.O. is as follows: P.E.O. is a Philanthropic Educational Organization where women celebrate the advancement of women; educate women through scholarships, grants, awards, loans and stewardship of Cottey College; and motivate women to achieve their highest aspirations. As a philanthropic organization, P.E.O. has given over $304 million in financial assistance to more than 102,000 women.
P.E.O. supports six philanthropic efforts:
1. Cottey College, a liberal arts and sciences college for women offering baccalaureate and associate degree programs, leadership opportunities, arts and athletics. It is located in Nevada, Mo., and is the only nonsectarian college in the country that is completely owned and supported by women. P.E.O. has run Cottey College since 1927.
2. Educational Loan Fund (ELF), a revolving loan fund to loan money to assist women in obtaining a college degree. The loan can be for up to $9,000 and is offered at 2.5 percent interest. There have been loans totaling more than $185.8 million since 1907.
3. International Peace Scholarship Fund (IPS), which provides funds for international women students to pursue graduate studies in the U.S. and Canada. There have been $36 million in scholarships given since 1949.
4. Program for Continuing Education (PCE), which provides need-based grants to women whose education has been interrupted and who find it necessary to return to school to better support themselves and their families. There have been $52.6 million in scholarships given since 1973.
5. Scholar Awards (PSA), which provide substantial, merit-based awards for women who are pursuing a doctorate at an accredited university. There have been $23 million in scholarships given since 1991.
6. STAR Scholarship (STAR), which provides scholarships for exceptional high school senior women that will enroll at an accredited postsecondary educational institution in the next academic year. There have been $6.6 million in scholarships given since 2009.
It is unique for a service or philanthropic organization to run its own college. Virginia Alice Cottey founded the College in 1884 with the firm belief that women deserved the same quality of education as men. She bequeathed the College to the P.E.O. Sisterhood in 1927.
Currently, Cottey’s residential student population of 350 women typically represents 40 states, Canada and 26 countries. At one time in its history, the college was referred to as “The College of World Friendship.” A sophomore trip to a European country with expenses covered by the College has been a hallmark of a Cottey education for 18 years. A variety of international internships and study abroad opportunities are also available to Cottey students.
P.E.O. has run the college for 90 years and the college has received a number of awards for excellence. Notably, U.S. News & World Report announced that Cottey College is nationally ranked in its annual 2017 U.S. News Best Colleges rankings. Cottey is listed at 22nd in Midwest Regional Colleges, representing 11 Midwestern states. Cottey is one of only two women’s colleges listed in the Midwest rankings.
Members of P.E.O. refer to each other as sisters, emphasizing the importance placed upon fellowship and being part of a community. Membership in P.E.O. is by invitation in order to offer potential members the opportunity to learn the significance of being part of a sisterhood that affirms their belief in God and in working together for the general improvement of themselves and society.
Before receiving an invitation to join, a woman must be sponsored by three members in a chapter. The sponsorship process includes getting to know each other and how the purpose of P.E.O. requires personal commitment and responsibilities. A potential member is encouraged to make a decision to join based on what she has learned about the local chapter and its members and about the broader, international scope of the organization.
P.E.O. does not discriminate against any woman based on age, ethnicity, religion or education. The sisterhood is based on friendship and mutual respect. They meet to support each other, for the common and uniting purpose of assisting women to reach their educational goals and, of course, to have fun.
According to Call and Johannes, each chapter has a variety of ages, from 18 years on up. There are lots of mothers and daughters and some chapters have four generations from the same family.
The Wheat Ridge Chapter EF has 32 members and 15 meetings per year, of which three are completely social events. The other meetings are a combination of social and business. The chapters are purposefully kept small to allow members to meet in each other’s homes, usually around supper, brunch or dessert meals. (And, yes, in my mind, dessert is a meal!)