A group of history professionals gathered in 2012 to answer this very question—What is the Value of History? The statement they published in 2014 has become a beacon and a guide for anyone trying to convince others of the importance of history. Their statement highlights why history is important to us, our communities and our future, and is relevant to our experience as P.E.O.s,
and as women.
To paraphrase, the statement’s key points are as follows. History nurtures personal and collective identity in a diverse world. Our history as P.E.O.s is our own and if we don’t preserve it, who will? History teaches vital skills. Imagine trying to figure out what do as a member or an officer without the experiences of those who served before us or the manuals they wrote for us. History is the foundation for strong vibrant communities. It is clear the local chapters who value history often have a strong foundation and a vibrant chapter life. History helps people envision a better future. You can’t decide where you want to go if you don’t know where you’ve been! History inspires leaders and offers positive role models. And finally, history, saved and preserved, is the foundation for future generations. It’s our ongoing gift to them.
That same group of professionals later published a list of the five qualities2 that are necessary for a relevant history experience. These five qualities are intended to be used as guidelines for institutions that history experiences, but they seem applicable to P.E.O., our mission, our projects and our chapters as well. 1. Our P.E.O. experiences should be rooted in historical quality. 2. They
should be applicable to our members and the communities we serve. 3. They should be impactful. 4. They should be current and timely. 5. They should encourage the participants to become and remain connected.
As the newly-appointed Historian for International Chapter, I am thrilled that so many in our Sisterhood, especially the leaders at the International and state/provincial/district levels, recognize the value of history. My inbox is always full of questions about the history of P.E.O., as well as more contemporary dilemmas about the best ways to record a chapter’s history and how store collections. There are questions about what should be tossed and what should be kept. If something is kept, how should they keep it? “Keep it all!” is of course an absurd answer, but always my first impulse. And still, other exasperated members with overflowing file boxes in their basement wonder why we should keep anything. As we celebrate 155 years of P.E.O., imagine how different the
story would go if none of the Founders or Builders remembered or kept anything from those early days.
On January 21, 1869, Franc Roads and Hattie Briggs were sitting on the steps of a wooden stile at the southeast entrance to the campus of Iowa Wesleyan University. They were discussing the drama of a new group about to announce themselves on campus, and Hattie suggested they start a society of their own. The P.E.O. Sisterhood was born out of that conversation. That afternoon, their group totaled seven and a 35-word oath that is still embedded in our current ceremony of initiation was written by Alice Bird. Two days later they held their first official meeting, adopted a Constitution and elected officers with Alice Bird as their first president. Three days! It takes me twice as long to decide what refreshments I might serve when cohosting a chapter meeting.
“We Who Are Sisters,” the beautiful history book published for our 150th anniversary in 2019, notes that the Founders were vital, but even they wouldn’t take full credit for our incredible Sisterhood. The book opens with a quote from Alice Bird Babb in 1919:
“If there is any virtue in the founding of P.E.O. it is not on account of the founders, for we were all ordinary girls, but on account of the time of founding. It was the age of vision, reconstruction not only along national lines, but reconstruction of thought, minds, souls. Women’s Clubs were demanded, they came at just the right time. It was strange soil for them to grow in, our lives were rigid, our paths were straight. Economy was the order of the day, but like Alpine flowers blooming in snow, they bloom all the more luxuriantly because of the rigidity of the atmosphere. P.E.O. thrived, we were not bound by criticism or cynicism.”
Alice’s humility is admirable but her reflection on the time period poignant. P.E.O. was founded in a time when there was active debate about whether or not women could handle the rigors of academics, and whether or not they should be educated alongside men. So, women’s clubs were not only demanded, they were necessary as systems of support for women who were not welcome in many spaces in society. Iowa Wesleyan may have been the first co-educational institution in Iowa, and those early P.E.O.s were sowing in rich soil, so to speak. However, the rest of the world was not nearly as welcoming to women; the need for P.E.O. and our mission of supporting women’s education would only grow as our Sisterhood moved beyond Mount Pleasant, Iowa.
All of that aside, it must also be noted that written records of those first 15 months of activities and meetings are missing so we only know for sure what happened on April 16, 1870 and later. While we are certainly grateful for what does exist in the Mount Pleasant collections and in the International Archives at the Executive Office, it is hard not to wish for just a bit more. Imagine a photo that captured proud smiles of the Founders in their aprons and the curious faces of their classmates in chapel, or a recording of the music and laughter at that first social, The Sidereal Soiree.
Think about that when going about your P.E.O. business. What would you want people in the future to know about your efforts, your activities, your mission, your vision…what should you keep that future historians would find useful and interesting? Rather than using my own instinct to keep it all, you can review the Historical Collections Guidelines for Local Chapters, as well as written requirements for acceptable storage of historical items for local chapters in the Instructions to Officers of Local Chapters. And when it overwhelming, think small. You don’t have to rent a state-of-the-art storage facility for your scrapbooks, nor do you need to catalog every item the way the Library of Congress or Smithsonian does. I’m currently on album three of what feels like 20,000 of my family’s photo albums and I photograph a few pages here and there while watching television. I then name the photos something simple like “1988 album, page 1.” It’s not perfect, but it’s more than I started with and it’s going to help encourage me to keep going. The most important thing is to get started and ask for help when you need it.
Happy Founders’ Day, Sisters! I hope you, too, find our history inspiring, and have an opportunity to reflect on what has gone before us and just how bright the future of P.E.O. will be!
Kylie Smith, Historian and Archivist, International Chapter