ESTHER (EGGERTSEN) PETERSON, 1906-1997

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See the finding aid for the Esther Peterson Papers, MC 450.

From the guide to the Audiotapes, 1959-1990, (Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute)

Esther Peterson was born Esther Eggertsen in Provo, Utah, on December 9, 1906. She was one of six children: Luther ("Bud"), Algie, Thelma, Anna Maria, Esther, and Mark. Her parents, Lars and Annie (Nielsen) Eggertsen , were the children of Danish immigrants who walked across the plains to Utah seeking freedom to worship as Mormons. The Eggertsens were Republicans, but Esther Peterson became an active Democrat, working in the fields of education, labor, women's rights and consumer affairs all her adult life.

Peterson attended public schools, was graduated from Brigham Young University (1927), taught in Utah for two years, and came east in 1929 to attend Teachers College at Columbia University. There she met her future husband, Oliver Peterson, and completed her masters degree (1930). Between 1930 and 1939, EP taught at the Winsor School in Boston; married Oliver Peterson; volunteered in the Industrial Department of the YWCA; was a labor organizer; joined Hilda Smith, a pioneer in workers' education, at the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers; and had her first child.

The 1940s were devoted to her family (Oliver Peterson and four children: Karen, Eric, Iver, and Lars), and to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. Most of the next ten years the Petersons spent overseas, where Oliver Peterson, a foreign service officer, was the United States Labor Attaché to Sweden, and later to Belgium. EP worked with the trade union movement and helped organize the first International School for Working Women.

When the Petersons returned to the U.S. in 1957, EP became legislative representative for the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO (1958-1961), serving until President John F. Kennedy chose her to head the Women's Bureau in the U.S. Department of Labor, and later the same year, to serve as Assistant Secretary of Labor for Labor Standards. In addition, she was appointed executive vice chairman of the first President's Commission on the Status of Women (1961-1963), chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt until her death in 1962. EP also helped found the National Committee on Household Employment, an organization that brought together voluntary organizations and government agencies under the auspices of the Women's Bureau (1964-1965) to improve the working conditions of household workers, develop training programs, and change public attitudes about household employees. According to EP, the "Committee began with a suggestion I made to the National Association of Women when they gave me the year's award which carried $3,000. This was the seed money to get the Committee started. Sears and Whirlpool helped."

After President Kennedy's assassination in 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson asked EP to remain as Women's Bureau director, and also named her to the newly created post of Special Assistant to the President for Consumer Affairs, a position she held until 1967. Until her re-appointment to this post by President Jimmy Carter in 1977, she worked as the legislative representative to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Association (1969-1970), and then as Consumer Advisor to Giant Food, a grocery store chain in the Washington, D.C. area (1970-1977). Oliver Peterson died in 1979 at the age of 76, ending a mutually devoted, lifelong partnership.

After serving in the Carter Administration, EP worked with various organizations concerned with the rights of consumers, both in the United States and abroad. She was appointed by President Bill Clinton to serve as a public member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in 1993. Esther Peterson died in her home in Washington, D.C. on December 20, 1997, at the age of 91.

Peterson helped to organize textile and garment workers as well as teachers; was instrumental in bringing about legislative victories for the minimum wage, amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Equal Pay Act, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act, truth-in-packaging, truth-in-lending, unit pricing, and product labeling of ingredients; worked actively for the rights of women, minorities, workers, consumers, and household employees; campaigned extensively for Democratic candidates; and traveled and lectured to a wide range of groups.

For additional biographical information, see below and papers in Series I and Series VIII. EP has additional papers in the presidential libraries of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Jimmy Carter (see #1935), and in the archives of the National Consumers' League. She has been a participant in various oral history projects; transcripts are available in Series I and elsewhere in the Schlesinger Library (see OH-2, OH-50, OH-55). Some highlights of her busy professional and personal life are reflected in the following chronology.

  • 1906: Born December 9 in Provo, Utah
  • 1927: Brigham Young University, A.B.
  • 1927 - 1929 : Teacher, Branch Agricultural College, Cedar City, Utah
  • 1930: Columbia Teachers College, M.A.
  • 1930 - 1936 : Head, Dept. of Physical Education, Winsor School, Boston, Mass.
  • 1932: Married Oliver A. Peterson in May
  • 1932 - 1939 : Teacher, Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers, and Hudson Shore Labor School; Chair, Industrial Committee of YWCA; American Federation of Teachers' union organizer (1 year); Education Director of International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (briefly); loaned to Textile Workers Organizing Committee for strike work; participant in general garment workers' strike (Boston, 1932)
  • 1938: Karen born
  • 1939: Eric born
  • 1939 - 1944 : Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) assistant director of education (to J.B.S. Hardman)
  • 1942: Iver born
  • 1944: Sent to Utah by CIO-PAC to campaign for Sen. Elbert Thomas and Congressman Granger
  • 1945 - 1948 : ACWA Washington legislative representative; United States Department of Labor (USDL) Women's Bureau advisory committee; Minimum Wage Board for D.C.
  • 1946: Lars born
  • 1948 - 1952 : Living in Stockholm; worked with Swedish Confederation of Trade Unions; represented American trade unions at various international conferences
  • 1952 - 1957 : Living in Brussels; worked with International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU)
  • 1958 - 1961 : AFL-CIO legislative representative for Industrial Union Department (IUD); member of Women's Africa Committee, 1958; associate member of Committee of Correspondence
  • 1961 - 1964 : USDL Women's Bureau director
  • 1961 - 1969 : USDL assistant secretary for labor standards
  • 1961 - 1963 : President's Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW), executive vice chairman
  • 1963 - 1965 : Interdepartmental Commission on the Status of Women (ICSW)
  • 1964 - 1967 : Special Assistant to the President for Consumer Affairs (SAPCA)
  • 1964 - 1967 : President's Council on Consumer Interests (PCCI), chairman
  • 1964: National Committee on Household Employment, honorary chairman
  • 1969 - 1970 : ACWA legislative representative
  • 1969: Traveled in Asia as American Specialist for U. S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs
  • 1970 - 1977 : Giant Food consumer advisor
  • 1974 - 1976 : National Consumers' League, president
  • 1975 - 1977 : Federal Commission on Federal Paperwork, member
  • 1977 - 1981 : Special Assistant to the President for Consumer Affairs
  • 1978 - 1981 : U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs, director
  • 1979 - 1981 : Consumer Affairs Council, chairperson
  • 1980 - 1980 ? : Committee on Consumer Policy, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), U.S. member
  • 1981: Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom by Jimmy Carter
  • 1981: National Consumers' League, honorary president
  • 1982: Visiting professor, U. of Illinois, Urbana - Champaign
  • 1983 - 1993 : International Organization of Consumers Unions (IOCU) representative to United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)
  • 1986 - 1993 : International Medical Services for Health (INMED), Board of Directors member
  • 1987 - 1993 : Consumer advisor to National Association of Professional Insurance Agents
  • 1993 - 1993 ? : Public member of US delegation to the UN General Assembly
  • 1997: Died at home in Washington, DC on December 20

From the guide to the Papers, 1884-1998 (inclusive), 1929-1988 (bulk), (Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Audiotapes, 1959-1990 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
creatorOf Papers, 1884-1998 (inclusive), 1929-1988 (bulk) Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
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Place Name Admin Code Country
Korea
Japan
Sweden
Utah
Poland
China
United States
South Africa
China
Subject
Consumer protection--Citizen participation
Advertising
Occupation
Function

Person

Birth 1906

Death 1997

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