Today, women constitute the majority of those enrolled in the more than 4,100 American colleges and universities. This was not always the case. In 1869, there were less than 600 institutions of higher education in the United States, many of which were small denominational schools established by pious pioneers. Only a little more than a third of those admitted women. Less than 1 percent of American females ages 18 through 21 were enrolled in any of these institutions.
One such small Methodist college, Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, provided the culture and climate that gave birth to the P.E.O. Sisterhood. At that time, Mount Pleasant was known as the “Athens of Iowa” for its progressive educational environment. In 1868-69, 26 years after its initial chartering in 1842, total collegiate enrollment at Iowa Wesleyan was 65 men and 27 women.
Seven of those women bonded together on January 21, 1869, as a friendship society that subsequently became the P.E.O. Sisterhood. The P.E.O. Founders, Mary Allen (Stafford), Allice Virginia Coffin, Franc Rhodes (Elliott), Alice Bird (Babb), Suela Pearson (Penfield), Ella Stewart and Hattie Briggs (Bousquet), were undoubtedly religious women. They were, after all, enrolled at this Methodist institution in a time when very few women were engaged in higher education. Most of the non-native population of the United States in the 1860s was Christian. The families of the Founders were “deeply religious people—not just pious, but people who made practical application of religion in everyday life.” Ella and Hattie had fathers who were Methodist ministers.
Ella's dad was the presiding elder for the Mount Pleasant district of the Methodist church. Hattie was a “natural leader in church affairs.”
Mary later became the wife of a Methodist minister and, it was said, “Practical Christianity was a natural way of life for Mary.” Alice Bird was also a religious woman, and hers was “a Christian home in the best Methodist tradition.”
Alice Coffin was raised a Methodist, but later became a Episcopalian because she was fond of dancing, an activity that was frowned upon by the Methodist church.
Franc later worked to secure a woman's right to vote and be seated in the general conference of the Methodist Episcopal church. This recalled that the Founders' parents had “the requisites of the pioneer —fearlessness, home, faith in God and themselves.”
The organization that the seven created was reflective of their beliefs and upbringings. They depended upon their religious teachings to frame their sisterhood because it was an integral part of their daily lives. The Founders adopted what we now call the Objects and Aims, P.E.O.'s underlying principles. The Objects and Aims are an ecumenical blueprint for right living.
As an Iowa Wesleyan collegian, Alice Bird wrote the original 35-word oath of initiation that the seven Founders and their contemporaries recited. Much of today's initiation ceremony was written in 1881 and was largely the work of Nellie Ambler Campbell and other members of Chapter A. In defining starpoints with reinforced messages, the writers used scriptural references with which they were most familiar. The core values, faith, love, purity, justice, and truth, are the constants of our organization, adopted 13 years after the founding. These values are also embedded in most of the world's religions.
In 1907, with the establishment of the P.E.O. Educational Loan Fund as our first project, P.E.O.'s purpose expanded with an official outreach of higher education for qualified women. Today, with five international projects, none of our philanthropies has any religious eligibility requirements nor do they make any mention of religion. Moreover, the United States Internal Revenue Service does not qualify P.E.O. as a religious organization. P.E.O. is a philanthropic and educational organization interested in bringing to women increased opportunities for higher education.
Nowhere in P.E.O.'s governing documents does it state that only women with certain religious affiliations may belong to the Sisterhood. What is said regarding religion was added to the P.E.O. Constitution in 1893 as a necessary requirement, i.e., a prospective member must acknowledge her belief in God.
Yet it is imperative that those invited to become members are aware they will find universal religious principles evidenced by Christian references, should they chose to become initiated. A Guide for When You are Invited states that all P.E.O. chapters follow the same procedures. Today our meetings are opened with a scripture reading, the P.E.O. prayer, the Lord's Prayer (King James Version) and the recitation of our Objects and Aims. The meeting is closed with a benediction. The P.E.O. Counsel for Membership Booklet encourages letting the prospective member know that “a written acceptance must include an affirmation of her belief in God…” as well as the fact that she will be asked to make her vows with a hand placed upon a Bible.
Just as in the 1869 beginning, our sisterhood continues to welcome members by recommendations from friends. We invite women who share our ideals and will be a valuable addition to our chapter and the entire Sisterhood. The unique sisterhood of caring support that P.E.O. provides its members is a special one not found in most organizations. In today's world, as the opportunities for friendships among all races and creeds abound, a more diverse sisterhood is evolving. Members who come freely and are well informed about the long standing supporting scriptural references within our procedures will be more likely to remain active and committed members. Pre-acceptance counseling should be thorough and honest. The choice whether or not to accept membership and to respect the sentiments put forth in our ceremonies and meeting procedures should be the candidate's to make knowingly and willingly.
Today's P.E.O. Mission Statement defines the organization as a “diverse sisterhood that welcomes women of all races, religions and backgrounds.” P.E.O. is an organization that treasures its history and honors its Founders. Making potential new members very aware of what is expected of them is an important aspect of growing committed and active members. If members come into the Sisterhood with a full understanding of and respect for the Founders' and early members' backgrounds, it will, no doubt, strengthen even more our organization. Personal religion has always been an important part of the lives of P.E.O. members and there is little doubt that it will continue to be, but it is important to remember that our educational and charitable sisterhood is open to those of all faiths who profess a belief in God.
FRAN BECQUE was initiated into Chapter KL, Carbondale, Illinois, in 1991. She recently served as president of Chapter KL. Fran’s undergraduate degree is from Syracuse University in New York and she has graduate degrees from Southern Illinois University—Carbondale. Fran’s dissertation focused on coeducation and the history of women’s fraternities 1867-1902.