BROOKINGS – The P.E.O. Sisterhood, a U.S.-based international philanthropic educational organization that champions educational opportunities for female students worldwide, has been around for more than a century and a half.
A Brookings woman who has been a member since she was 18 years old was honored earlier this year for her service, which spans almost half of that period – 75 years.
“It was started by seven young women in 1869,” said Margaret Denton, 94. “They were at Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. They decided to have a friendship group, and it’s grown since then.”
“We’ve had chapters here in South Dakota since, I think, 1905,” she added. “Most of the things that the organization does is, we have provided loans for non-degree people, scholarship awards, an international peace fund for women who come here to go to school, say college, but don’t have sufficient funds. So they apply and our hope is that they’ll go back to their country and use it. We have quite a history of promoting education for women and then helping financially.”
Additionally, since 1926 (the year Denton was born) the Sisterhood has owned and operated Cottey College, a private women’s college in Nevada, Missouri. It was established in 1884 by Alice Cottey.
“It’s a really nice college,” Denton explained. “I’ve been through Nevada, Missouri. I’ve looked at the college. It’s a liberal arts and science school. It’s been able to hold up that long. That’s something for a small college.”
“We’ve helped over 100,000 women pursue their educational goals,” she said of what is job No. 1 for the Sisterhood. “That’s about $300 million, I think in educational assistance.”
There are five P.E.O. Sisterhood chapters in Brookings, with membership ranging from about 33 to about 50, according to Benda Berseth, who serves as a chapter president.
“They’re always taking in new people,” Denton explained, noting that if a chapter gets large enough, “women can break off and form a new chapter. And that’s another way of saying, ‘OK, let’s start a new chapter.’ It’s an easy thing to do, to spread around.”
There is an annual Sisterhood convention, but this year’s was set aside due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The conventions are used to honor P.E.O. members for certain numbers of years of service.
“I got honored when I’d been in for 50 years,” Denton said. “This year, when it was 75 years, not many people get to 65 or 75; this year evidently, I happened to be the only P.E.O. in the state to be honored for being a member for 75 years.”
From Hastings to Brookings
Looking back from now to her own becoming a member, then Margaret Hunter, remembered her mother Bess Hunter being a well-respected Sisterhood member in Hastings, Nebraska. She died when Margaret was 11 years old.
“All the women really thought she was great and kind of followed me as a young girl when I was growing up. When I was a freshman in college and 18 years old, they initiated me into their chapter in Hastings, Nebraska.”
In 1946, she married C.E. Denton, whom she had known since their being together in theater in high school. They both attended the University of Nebraska (Lincoln), earning degrees in theater. In 1956, they came to Brookings and South Dakota State University, where he served on the faculty until retiring from the Department of Communications and Theatre as professor emeritus in 1991. It was here that she found a Sisterhood chapter.
“I really didn’t belong to a chapter from the time I was 18, when I initiated, until the time we came here to Brookings,” she said. “We lived in Louisiana and other places.
“So I was excited to find other women that called us the P.E.O. Sisterhood.” Additionally, she found her niche and a vocation in Brookings.
“My life’s work has been in human rights, actually in women’s rights,” Denton explained. “I served here in Brookings as the director of a Brookings women’s center.
“We had emphasis on family abuse and also in helping women to again get started and feel confident to reach out and be not only housewives but get jobs or continue their education.
“We don’t have a women’s center anymore, but we certainly have a very strong domestic abuse center (shelter); I’m really proud of that. Our women’s center got that started. I’m so glad it’s gone on all of these years.
“I continue to be supportive of human rights for all, but especially equality for women.”
Mystery of women being together
Denton admits that there have been rumors of the Sisterhood being a “secret society.”
“No, it really wasn’t,” she explained, looking back to the genesis of the Sisterhood. “At the time, my understanding, there were societies on campus. These young women didn’t belong to any, but they decided: ‘Hey, let’s get together, friends, and start something.’
“So that’s how they got started and they called themselves the Sisterhood. In that time they had all kinds of signs for sororities and so on. So maybe they decided to put PEO on and so it really doesn’t stand for something other than the fact that it is an educational organization.”
Membership is by invitation only. The Sisterhood doesn’t advertise much; members invite by word of mouth women they would like to have join them.
“It’s not that we keep it a secret,” Denton said. “It’s just the mystery of women being together. Men had their own organizations.”
“It’s grown. My goodness, it’s amazing, nationally,” she said of Sisterhood membership, then noting the organization’s accomplishments. “The chapters, all over, have given about $300 million in educational assistance. That’s our whole goal.
“Yes, we have programs and help each other in various ways, but we’re always looking: Many of us have found young women graduating; we let them know at the high school here what’s available through our organization.”
Denton said there is per se no minimum age requirement for joining. She was considered young when she joined at 18 years old.
“That’s unusual,” she said. “It used to be back then they took in more daughters. They’d say, ‘My daughter is a wonderful person. I think she ought to be a member.’
“These days you don’t want to put that on a young person who might not have any interest in it as they mature. It’s mostly made up of women that know what they’re doing when they say they want to be involved. You have a commitment, so you want to know what their goals are.”
Community service was something for which the Dentons were recognized: they served as co-chairs of Brookings United Way in 1996. And in 2005, the year C.E. died, Margaret was recognized with the Dorothy & Eugene T. Butler Human Rights Award for advancing the cause of human rights.
The Dentons have three children, four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
Contact John Kubal at [email protected]