Esther Peterson, right, with Eleanor Roosevelt in January 1962. Courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library website; version date 2010.
Esther Peterson worked for four Presidents of the United States, in different jobs. She worked in behalf of workers and consumers. She investigated discrimination against women, and helped pass a law requiring companies to pay women and men the same for doing the same work (called “equal pay for equal work”). She also worked to make advertisers to tell the truth: If a dishwashing soap promised to “soften hands,” it had to actually do that! She required clothing companies to put laundry tags in their clothes so that people would know how best to wash the clothes. And she made food companies put nutrition labels on their products. Her innovations continue to protect the rights of workers and consumers today.
A local girl moves to the big city.
Esther Peterson began life in the little town of Provo, Utah in 1906. As she grew, she began to want to be a teacher—and to go beyond Provo. So she traveled to New York, where she got a Masters degree from Columbia University.
With this prestigious degree in hand, she taught in New England for a time. There, she met her husband Oliver. The couple lived in Boston. There, she worked for the YWCA.
Say no to discrimination!
Peterson noticed that African Americans could not come into the YWCA where she worked. She argued that this was not right! The YWCA changed its policies and let African Americans come in!
While they were in Boston, she also became interested in workers’ rights.
A chance to live in Sweden.
Later, when her husband got a job working as a diplomat in Sweden, Esther continued to work on organizing and educating female workers while she and her family lived in Sweden.
When the family returned to Washington, D.C., Peterson worked as a lobbyist for a labor union.
Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country!
Esther Peterson writing at a meeting of the President's Commission on the Status of Women in June 1962. Eleanor Roosevelt is pictured left of her. Courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library website; version date 2010.
Then President John F. Kennedy chose her to run the Women’s Bureau in the Department of Labor and to be Assistant Secretary of Labor for Labor Standards.
After the assassination of JFK, President Lyndon Johnson kept her as head of the Women’s Bureau, and also made her his special assistant for Consumer Affairs.
Ten years later, President Jimmy Carter chose her again to be the special assistant to the President for Consumer Affairs. President Bill Clinton named her to the U.S. delegation to the UN Assembly in 1993.
This meant that four presidents appointed Peterson to important positions.
She made life better for Americans.
Esther Peterson was a tireless crusader for workers rights. More important, she could balance the interests of workers, employers, and the government. Many of the consumer practices that we take for granted today began with Esther’s hard work and innovative mind!
In 1981, after she had worked to help people for more than 50 years, Esther received a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest national award any civilian can get.
Advice from Esther
To young people, she said,
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.