She graduated from Brigham Young University in 1927, with a degree in Physical Education, and then went on to earn a Master's from the Teacher's College at Columbia University, in 1930. She was hired to teach at the famous Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers in Industry, where she worked with telephone operators, garment workers, and other working women. The program was created to provide a college level education to women workers, but also to provide an opportunity for women workers to tell their stories and educate the educators. Esther described it as a mix of "Shakespeare, drama, and socialism." And it was. Many of the women involved went on to play active roles in the Labor movement. Including Esther.
Later, while living in Boston, she organized a strike among women seamstresses who mainly sewed pockets on aprons. They'd been forced to switch from simple square pockets to more complicated heart-shaped pockets, without any increase in pay. They won their strike by following her advice to dress nicely, to discourage the Boston police from backing their horses into them, which was pretty common practice at the time.
Combining her passion for teaching and labor, in 1938 she took a paid position as organizer for the American Federation of Teachers, traveling around New England advocating for teachers' rights.
After World War II, when much of the rest of the country seemed to be turning away from labor issues due to the economic boom, she became the first lobbyist for the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C. After several years serving with her husband in a diplomatic role in Sweden, she returned to her work in Washington, D.C., this time as the first female lobbyist for the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO.
First and foremost, her work as a labor organizer was also one of a feminist nature, as Dorothy Sue Cobble calls her, a "labor feminist." She worked primarily with women in her first decade on the job. And even once she'd moved on to other lobbyist positions, she continued to advocate for women's rights, including fighting for child care in federal agencies and departments, and equal pay for women.
Under President Kennedy, she served as Assistant Secretary of Labor and Director of the United States Women's Bureau, the agency created to administer labor laws concerning women. She was hand-picked to serve on the President's Commission on the Status of Women, and after the death of Eleanor Roosevelt in 1962, she took over her leadership role.
Her passion for the rights of women and workers was not reserved for how they were treated at work or in politics, but also how they were treated by society in general. One area where her work may have had the greatest impact is how shoppers are treated in the grocery store.
Next time you're in the market and look at the nutritional label on the side of the package, think of Esther Peterson. She was the first to suggest that shoppers would appreciate knowing what they were buying, and how many vitamins and proteins were in each package. Her original idea has since been expanded to include other important information that can help shoppers make decisions more easily.
She also convinced Giant to label their seafood more clearly so shoppers would know which items had been frozen and thawed, as opposed to served fresh.
And while a little simple algebra can help you determine which item is the best bargain, she made it easier for busy shoppers by having the stores list the unit-price on the shelves.
In 1981, she was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Carter. His remarks at the presentation are eloquent and perfectly sum up her life's work:
Once government's highest ranking woman, Esther Peterson still ranks highest among consumer advocates. She has advised Presidents and the public, and has worked for labor and business alike, always keeping the rights of all Americans to know and to be treated fairly as her highest priority. Even her staunchest foes respect her integrity and are warmed by her grace and sincere concern."She serves those who are most deprived and has done that with her whole life." Yes. This is what makes her a fantastic role model for Self-Rescuing Princesses everywhere!
You may be surprised that in the citation the word "foes" is mentioned in relation to this lovely American, but she has made some foes. [Laughter] And I would guess, knowing her, that she's prouder of the foes she has made— [laughter] —if possible, 'than even some of the friends she has. She has never been afraid to address difficult issues even at the expense on occasion of personal harmony with those about whom she cares. She serves others with her entire dedicated life.
She's come to the inner circles of the White House in a major position during these last few years to work with me to make sure that the average American is not cheated, that they are told the truth, that they are treated fairly, and that when they go into the marketplace they can have some inner sense of trust in the free enterprise system which she has served so well. She's a delightful person, a person with charm, a person who makes deep friendships and deep commitments. And her deepest commitment has been to those who don't know her and who will probably never see her or maybe not even hear her voice. She serves those who are most deprived and has done that with her whole life.
I love her personally, and I congratulate her on receiving this award, the Medal of Freedom of our country.
(source: The American Presidency Project)
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