The P.E.O. Sisterhood Turns 148!

P.E.O., the Philanthropic Educational Organization, founded at Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, celebrates its 148th birthday today. It was founded by seven young women. About a month earlier, Libbie Brook, who had previously been enrolled at Monmouth College, across the Mississippi River to the east but transferred to IWU. Her sole purpose was starting another chapter of her women’s fraternity, I.C. Sorosis. She was successful in late December 1868 and she founded the second chapter of what is today known by its original Greek motto, Pi Beta Phi.  According to legend, not all of the seven P.E.O. founders were asked to be part of Brook’s group, so they started a society of their own.

Lulu Corkhill was not one of the seven founders of P.E.O., but she may as well have been. She grew up in Mount Pleasant, the daughter of a Methodist minister. She was initiated in March 1869, several weeks after P.E.O. was founded. She was 14 at the time.

She said of those first meetings in Mount Pleasant, “Everything was of such vast importance, everything was so secret. When and where we held our meetings were of as much secrecy as was our oath. And for revealing an officer’s name – that would have been an offense worthy of expulsion. As I look back I can but smile as I recall how careful we were to go down side streets and double on our tracks, and separate ourselves into groups of one as we neared the place of meeting, lest any idle onlooker should detect more than one girl going into a house on the same afternoon and should guess that the P.E.O.s were having a meeting.”

In 1882, a P.E.O. convention was held in the Methodist parsonage of Corkhill’s father, Dr. Thomas E. Corkhill, in Bloomfield, Iowa. She later reflected on that meeting at which she served as hostess, “As I have tried to recall early days, I have come to realize as never before, how really important our every day life is, and how much it means to those who come after us. We who were early P.E.O.s lived those days and did not think them of enough importance to write them down, and did not try to remember events, and how eagerly those records are sought today. Thus the small events of today may be the great things of tomorrow.”

Lulu Corkhill Williams wearing her star in her hair.

Both the Pi Phi and P.E.O. histories describe the rivalry between the two groups in the early years. They are described as  “mortal foes,” yet they “respected the steel of the other, for the societies were made up of much of the same type of girls. In Iowa Wesleyan they couldn’t even belong to the same literary societies; they had two societies in later years. The two boys’ fraternities (Beta Theta Pi, founded 1868, Phi Delta Theta, founded 1871 and perhaps Delta Tau Delta active 1875-80) had to be very careful in the way they divided their dates and their attentions.”

Knowing of this rivalry, I was quite surprised to run across a page in a 1914 Arrow of Pi Beta Phi. It was an obituary for Emma Kate Corkhill. Lulu, the P.E.O., had a sister who was a Pi Phi. Both were initiates of the chapters at Iowa Wesleyan. Emma Kate graduated in 1889 and 1892; she earned both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s. She taught at her Alma Mater for a year, at Simpson College for seven years, and at Lawrence University for the remainder of her life.

When Emma Kate died in a Chicago hospital on December 13, 1913, her funeral services were in Mount Pleasant. Her Pi Beta Phi sisters “met the family at the station and opened rank, at the church while the funeral cortege passed through both on entering and leaving the church. Warm tears were on many faces for this gifted woman had an especial place in many hearts among those who had known her from her childhood.” It was noted by one of the members of her chapter that Emma Kate’s “place in the faculty of Lawrence, her place in her sister’s (Lulu’s) home, her place in Pi Beta Phi will long remain a vital tribute to her worth as a woman of heart, of intellect and of true spirituality.” I suspect the rivalry wasn’t that strong if loving sisters could chose to join a “rival” organization.

Emma Kate Corkhill is buried with her parents in a Mount Pleasant, Iowa, cemetery.

Lulu Corkhill married Hemmerle B. Williams, who coined the term B.I.L., the husbands and significant others of P.E.O. members. He is known in P.E.O. circles as “the original B.I.L.” His wife served as Illinois State Chapter President and today her name is carried on in Illinois State Chapter’s Lulu Corkhill Williams Friendship Fund. The fund was created from funds left over from the 1934 convention. More than $1,756,000 has been awarded to 1300+ Illinois women and men facing financial difficulty.

Happy Founders’ Day to my P.E.O. sisters!

© Fran Becque,, 2017. All Rights Reserved. If  you enjoyed this post, please sign up for updates. Also follow me on twitter @GLOHistory and Pinterest

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