P.E.O. was founded on January 21, 1869, by seven students at Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. This circle of kindred spirits – bonded by their enthusiasm for women's opportunities – eventually expanded to include women off campus as well. Through membership, the P.E.O. Sisterhood has brought together more than a half a million women in the United States and Canada who are passionate about helping women advance through education, while supporting and motivating them. 

Friendship is the cornerstone of P.E.O. – it is the legacy left by our Founders and it thrives in our unique Sisterhood. P.E.O. exists to be a source of encouragement and support for women to realize their potential in whatever worthwhile endeavor they choose.

True to the mission of promoting educational opportunities for women, education continues to be the primary philanthropy of the P.E.O. Sisterhood. In fact, the P.E.O. Sisterhood proudly sponsors six international philanthropies, or projects, designed to assist women with their educational goals.

As a result, P.E.O. is clearly making a difference in the lives of women all over the world. More than 109,000 women have benefited from our organization's educational grants, loans, awards, special projects and stewardship of Cottey College. As of April 2019, P.E.O. has awarded Educational Loan Fund dollars totaling more than $208.2 million, International Peace Scholarships are more than $40 million, Program for Continuing Education grants are more than $59.2 million, Scholar Awards are more than $26.7 million and P.E.O. STAR Scholarships are more than $10.7 million. In addition, P.E.O. has owned and supported Cottey College, an independent, baccalaureate-granting liberal arts and sciences institution, since 1927. In 2018-19, Cottey saw a 10 percent increase in new first-year students and over 70 percent of Cottey students had declared a 4-year major.

Grant, loan and award recipients – as well as Cottey College students – need not be members of P.E.O. With the exception of international students who receive International Peace Scholarships, each recipient is sponsored by a P.E.O. chapter. This allows the chapter members to be a meaningful part of "their" student's life.