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A Women’s College is Allowing “Transgender” Students, and She Was “Expelled” From Her Philanthropic Organization for Talking About It

By Whitney Munro


Jeanette Burrage has been a third-generation member of the P.E.O. Sisterhood for over 50 years, a philanthropic organization run by women, for women. 

“Aside from my family history, what drew me to the P.E.O. was the love and care of the sisters to each other and the comradery,” she said. “We have meetings twice a month where we socialize and learn from each other. It’s a real community.”

The P.E.O. Sisterhood has owned Cottey College since 1927, a women’s college located in Missouri. Though P.E.O has many other projects to celebrate the advancement of women, each chapter of the organization (there are well over 5,500 in Canada and the United States) also sends financial support to the school in varying amounts. P.E.O. additionally requires each member to pay $6 to support Cottey College in their dues

As a former chapter president, Burrage strongly feels all sisters deserve to know what their time, energy, and money are achieving. So when she learned the college had started admitting male students who identify as transgender and requiring classes on sex and gender, she emailed chapter presidents to make sure they knew, too.

For many, it was the first time they’d heard about the policies. They formed a group called the Concerned Sisters. “There are about 155 of us,” Burrage said.

When the state board president caught wind of Burrage’s emails, she sent out a few letters of her own, directing chapter presidents to ignore Burrage and not discuss the policy in their chapter meetings. Sisters in other states received similar letters from board presidents. The message was clear—don’t talk about these policies.

In a letter to Burrage, reviewed by IWF, Patricia Brolin-Ribi, president of the International Chapter, wrote, “It is not allowable to circularize your personal opinions to members of our Sisterhood.”

Burrage said members became just as concerned with the gag order as they were with the college policies. To them, silencing a group of women from discussing important issues seemed antithetical to the values of the P.E.O Sisterhood itself.

“Jeanette [Burrage] chose to share vital information regarding Cottey College that she had tried to share via regular channels but was stifled by leadership at every turn,” wrote a P.E.O sister in Montana—who wished to remain anonymous—in a scathing letter addressed to her state board president. Later in this letter, she continued: 

“We, the P.E.O. Sisterhood, own and fund Cottey College, and we have every right to know what is happening there and discuss it freely with our sisters.”

Chapters started brainstorming ways to strengthen their voices and representation at P.E.O. conventions where the big decisions are made. Burrage’s chapter drafted an amendment that would require delegates to communicate with chapters periodically, in order to keep them in the loop and avoid more surprises.

Burrage’s chapter passed it unanimously, which sent it to the Washington state board for approval. A few weeks later, the state board suspended Burrage’s entire chapter.

Burrage said she later discovered the board had exploited a rule discouraging members from spamming other members to sell things like Avon and Pampered Chef products.

“They didn’t give any warning to the chapter. They just sent a letter that says one of our members violated our circulation policy, and the whole chapter was being suspended,” Burrage said.

In other words, her entire chapter was punished because one sister spoke with other sisters about Cottey College.

IWF reached out to a representative for P.E.O, who said that Cottey is a separate legal organization and it has no comments regarding the college’s admissions policy. A spokeswoman also stated: “P.E.O. is a private organization and we do not discuss our private business.” 

The suspension appears to have violated the P.E.O.’s constitution, and Burrage believes that the leadership doesn’t care. It’s unclear if Burrage’s chapter members will have a chance to go to the convention and ask to be reinstated, and she believes it’s unlikely other chapters would be willing to advocate on their behalf, given what unfolded.

“If you speak up, not only will they show you the door, but all of your local sisters get punished too. Who’d take that risk? A few of the Concerned Sisters were frightened it could happen to their chapters just for talking about it,” Burrage said. “So I had a couple of them ask to be removed from the list.”

According to Burrage, other P.E.O. chapters are expressing their anger and discontent with their wallets, switching their Cottey College donations from $500 to $50.

“It’s sad. We’re a sisterhood, so we’re always a little bit secret from the outside world. But we aren’t supposed to be secretive from each other,” Burrage said. And what happened next, Burrage believes, suggests the disconnect between P.E.O. leadership and its members is no oversight—it’s by design.

“We passed the amendment to meet our delegates before conventions on October 11,” Burrage explained. “When the board suspended my chapter on October 17, 2023, they back-dated it to the same day. They have not said it precisely, but it appears they are now claiming they suspended us before we voted!”

This change disqualifies the amendment from being discussed at the next convention. With no other recourse, Burrage hopes that publicizing these policies and the events that unfolded will motivate others to stop sending money to Cottey College, and ultimately, force leadership to change its policies.

“Stopping payments to Cottey College might get those at the top of the sisterhood to pay attention,” Burrage said. “They want to make the organization more ‘inclusive’ so more women (and transgender people) will adopt their ideology and raise money for the organization.”

Even as the inner circle of the P.E.O Sisterhood has turned on Burrage for trying to protect a beloved women’s philanthropic institution, her loving concern for her sisters endures. 

“My chapter did nothing wrong,” she said. “And now it’s gone. There is no inclusion for us, and many of our sisters have been P.E.O.s for decades.”

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