P.E.O.: Sisters in opportunity

By Sean Barron

Special to The Vindicator


About five weeks after a large sorority was organized in late 1868, seven college students gathered in their school’s music room with the idea to form their own society.

A big part of what brought them together was their deep enthusiasm rooted in what they saw as growing opportunities for women.

It’s highly unlikely, though, the seven young women could have foreseen that their vision and efforts would one day become an international organization that would reach out to tens of thousands of women.

“P.E.O. members truly are women helping women reach for the stars,” said Karen Dennison, referring to the Philanthropic Educational Organization the seven women founded Jan. 21, 1869, at Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. “As membership grew and people began moving throughout the country, P.E.O. chapters were organized in other states.”

One of those is Youngstown-based Chapter CE, which was established Jan. 22, 1954. The organization’s first was Chapter A.

Dennison, Chapter CE’s historian, spoke to about 30 fellow members during a recent luncheon at A la Cart Catering, 429 Lisbon St., to celebrate the 145th anniversary of the community-based international organization as well as the 60th anniversary of Chapter CE’s founding.

P.E.O., one of the nation’s oldest and largest nonsectarian women’s organizations, is dedicated to promoting educational opportunities for women as well as celebrating their advancements and achievements. The organization has close to 6,000 chapters in the U.S. and Canada with nearly 250,000 members, its mission statement says.

To that end, P.E.O. offers five international scholarships, awards and continuing-education programs and operates Cottey College, a fully accredited women’s college in Nevada, Mo., that had its first graduation in 1887 and through which more than 8,600 have graduated.

P.E.O.’s seven charter members had diverse backgrounds that ranged from advocating for women’s rights to teaching in a school for troubled boys, but all highly valued education, Dennison noted.

The mid-1950s saw a tremendous amount of industrial and population growth in Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley. Part of that included P.E.O. members from elsewhere, including 16 members who founded Chapter CE, she continued.

Many demographics had changed by the 1980s, however, such as a greater number of area women working, so some people saw the need to form another chapter with evening meetings, which led to the start of Youngstown Chapter EM on March 19, 1983, Dennison explained.

In 1961, the nonprofit P.E.O. Foundation was established “to encourage tax-deductible gifts to the educational and charitable projects of the P.E.O. Sisterhood,” she noted, adding that Ohio has a scholarship program for Ohio women who are entering into bachelor’s-degree programs or working on earning such degrees.

P.E.O.’s programs have helped more than 90,000 recipients reach their goals, said Barbara Hall, Chapter CE’s vice president.

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