Esther Peterson was a trailblazer—as a woman and an advocate for workers’ rights. She was honored by the National Women’s Hall of Fame as “one of the nation’s most effective and beloved catalysts for change.” In 1981, Esther received a Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian award, to honor her more than 50 years of activism.
Peterson’s courage and vision have shaped our society and our daily lives. Esther Peterson: Became the driving force to make equal pay for equal work the law.
Peterson didn’t just think about the concerns of workers, women or consumers, she made these things happen.
The daughter of Danish immigrants, Esther Eggertsen grew up in a Mormon family in conservative Provo, Utah. At age 12, she witnessed her first strike when railway workers pushed for an eight-hour workday in 1918. She didn’t know what the workers were fighting for but believed that unions were evil and labor leaders were troublemakers.
Peterson graduated from Brigham Young University and moved to New York City, where she married Oliver Peterson. In 1932, the two moved to Boston, where she taught at a prep school and volunteered at the YWCA.
Her work at the Y also introduced her to racial discrimination. There were no black women at her Y because they had to use another facility across town. She quickly pointed out that the Y’s statement of purpose included equality and justice, and the Y eventually was integrated.
Peterson’s real education began one evening when most of her students at the YWCA didn't come to class because they were on strike. To find out more, she went to the home of one of her students, 16-year-old Eileen. Inside, Peterson met her siblings and mother who were sitting at a table with a single light bulb hanging from above. They all were working. The youngest, a three-year-old, was sitting in a high chair counting out bobby pins into piles of 10. The older children were putting the pins onto cardboard.
Most of the girls in her class worked in the garment industry making housedresses for $1.32 per dozen dresses. When company officials changed the pocket on the dresses from square- to heart-shaped, the workers couldn’t sew them as quickly, and their wages were even less. “A square is easy to sew but have you ever tried to sew around the curves of a heart?” Eileen asked.
The following morning, Peterson stood beside the girls on the picket line. She realized how, together, these girls had a voice and how powerful the link between collective action and women’s empowerment could be.
Inspired by the “heartbreakers strike,” as it was called later, she became involved with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and spent summers working at the Summer School for Women Workers in Industry. The school brought young working women from across the country and several nations together for classes ranging from economics to poetry grounded in working-class life.
In 1938, Peterson became a paid organizer for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and traveled around New England. That year, she also had the first of four children. Although her husband fully supported her in motherhood and career, it wasn’t easy balancing work and family, particularly in the 1930s. At one point, she was earning $15 a week, while paying someone $20 a week to look after her child.
The following year, she joined the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union (ACWU). She also spent a summer in Utah organizing, with help from the newly established National Labor Relations Board. In 1944, Peterson became the union’s first lobbyist in Washington, D.C. At her first union lobbyists’ meeting, all the men stood up when she walked in. Peterson didn't want to be treated differently and announced, “Please don’t stand up for me. I don’t intend to stand up for you.” Because she was new, they assigned her to a new representative from Boston, John F. Kennedy, who—everyone thought at the time—“won’t amount to much” anyway.
On Capitol Hill, one of Peterson’s main projects involved raising the minimum wage from 40 cents to 75 cents an hour. She also worked on getting workers in other industries covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established minimum wages and work hours.
In 1948, the State Department offered Peterson’s husband a position as a diplomat in Sweden. She spent 10 years in Europe and became active in the women’s committees of the Swedish Confederation of Trade Unions and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.
The family returned to Washington D.C., in 1957 and Peterson joined the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO, becoming its first woman lobbyist. By then, Kennedy was senator and when he decided to run for president a few years later, Peterson agreed to help work the campaign in Utah.
After Kennedy became president in 1961, Peterson was appointed head of the Women’s Bureau in the Department of Labor. She hosted a series of hearings across the country to hear from working women. Her discussions included the value of their work, inside and outside the home, the combined burden of race and gender discrimination among minority women, the glass ceiling and equal pay. At a discussion in Los Angeles, when she asked women about their greatest need, an agriculture worker responded with one word: toilets.
Peterson then established the President’s Commission on the Status of Women to further study the status of women and develop recommendations to achieve equality. The commission’s final report, which became a best seller, addressed the lack of day care for working parents, equal pay for equal work and women clustered in low-wage work. The report sparked a national debate over the value of women’s work. The commission also laid the groundwork for the National Women’s Committee on Civil Rights to ensure African American women, in particular, were heard in the struggle for civil rights.
Peterson was a driving force behind the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963. That year, she also was named assistant secretary of labor for labor standards. As the highest-ranking woman in the Kennedy administration, she was responsible for enforcing laws covering minimum wage, work hours and health and safety protections.
For the next 20 years, Peterson was the voice for consumers within the White House and the food industry. Peterson fought for truth in advertising, standardization in packing and pricing and consumer rights across industries.
In particular, her campaigns revolutionized the food industry. She developed “sell before” dates on perishables, a unit-pricing system on grocery store shelf markers so consumers could compare the cost of one product with another and labels with nutritional values.
Peterson died at her home in Washington, D.C., in 1997 at age 91.
When asked what advice she would offer young people, Peterson commented, “I’m not one who feels that you have to be brave and be a star, but your life can be satisfying and happy if you work to make a difference. Maybe the difference will be just a little tiny piece and not a big difference. But the point is to make a difference by the way you live your life.”
Peterson, Ether, Restless: The Memoirs of Labor and Consumer Activist Esther Peterson, Caring Publishing, 1997.