“We have a tremendous responsibility to future generations to leave an accurate record of our history, one which lays bare not only the facts, but the process of change.” – Ester Eggersten Peterson
While you may not know Ester’s name, you’ve got a lot to thank her for, from consumer protections we now take for granted and the Equal Pay Act, which attempted to level the financial playing field between men and women in the workplace. The National Women’s Hall of Fame has called her “one of the nation’s most effective and beloved catalysts for change.”
Ester Eggersten was born on December 9, 1906, in Provo, Utah. Her parents were immigrants from Denmark who were not well off. Her father was the local superintendent of schools and her mother kept boarders at her house to supplement his meager income. Esther earned her bachelor’s in physical education from Brigham Young University in 1927 and a master’s from Columbia University Teachers College in New York City in 1930.
She chose to stay in New York and in 1932, Ester married Oliver Peterson, with whom she eventually had four children. Esther became a teacher at The Windsor school and volunteered at the YWCA, where she witnessed racial discrimination and organized her first strike. Some of her students had jobs sewing aprons and when they were forced to change the design of the pockets from squares to hearts—hearts were much more difficult to sew and therefore slowed them down—their wages were docked. Esther intervened and the women won their strike.
Around the same time, she became assistant director of education at the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers in Industry. During the summers from 1932-1939, she helped teach women who also worked as milliners, telephone operators and garment workers.
In 1938, Ester became a paid organizer for the American Federation of Teachers. For the next six years, she traveled around New England advocating for teachers’ rights. From 1939-1944 and again from 1945-1948, she served as a lobbyist for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.
In 1944, she became the first lobbyist for the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C. The AFL-CIO recounts that “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.”
When her husband was offered a diplomatic position in Sweden in 1948, their family relocated there and they lived abroad until 1957. Back in Washington D.C., Esther joined the Industrial Union Department of the AFL–CIO, as its first female lobbyist.
In 1961 when President Kennedy took office, he appointed his former colleague Esther as Director of the Women’s Bureau in the Department of Labor and later as the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Labor Standards, roles she held from 1961-1969. These roles made her the highest ranking woman in the Kennedy administration.
At Esther’s urging, President Kennedy created the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, whose first leader was Eleanor Roosevelt. Esther served as Executive Vice Chair. One of the outcomes of this group was the Equal Pay Act, passed on June 10, 1963. According to the AFL-CIO, “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.”
While those things received more media attention, also in 1963, the Commission issued a groundbreaking report called American Women, which included topics such as job discrimination and daycare. In 1968, Ester succeeded in establishing a day care at the Labor Department, the first on-site day care center at a federal government agency; today it is named after her.
Ester also served on presidential commissions on consumer interests and fought for truth in advertising, uniform packaging, “sell buy” dates, unit pricing and nutritional labeling. After President Kennedy was assassinated, Ester went on to serve under Presidents Johnson and Carter as Special Assistant for Consumer Affairs.
After leaving government work in 1971, Ester was 65 and could have easily retired, but she continued her fight for consumer protection as vice president and consumer adviser to the Giant Food Corporation, president of the National Consumers League and chairman of the Consumer Affairs Council. At the age of 75, she was hired by the National Association of Professional Insurance Agents as a consumer adviser, particularly focusing on the problems faced by seniors. She also served on the board of the United Seniors Health Cooperative.
In 1981, Estelle received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a civilian in the United States. The following year, she was elected to the Common Cause National Governing Board.
In 1990, the American Council on Consumer Interests created the Esther Peterson Consumer Policy Forum lectureship, which is presented each year at their annual conference. In 1993, Ester was named a delegate of the United Nations as a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) representative and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Working nearly until the end, Esther died on December 20, 1997, in Washington D.C., at the age of 91.