From the archives: Remembering Esther Peterson

For Labor Day, I thought I’d write about Mormonism’s own labor hero, Esther Peterson. This is mostly adapted from an interview Cokie Roberts did in 1993, and retold in her book _We Are Our Mothers’ Daughters_ (dumb title; pretty good book).

Esther Peterson’s mother was one of the first women to attend Brigham Young Academy, but she had to drop out and work when her father became ill. So from a young age, Esther was aware of the real necessity of women being able to work and earn a living.

Esther left Utah to attend Columbia Teachers College, where she met Oliver Peterson. They married and moved to Boston, where Esther taught at a girls’ school. She also volunteered to teach working girls at the YWCA in the evenings. One night, she arrived to find a nearly empty classroom, and learned that her students were striking, because the conditions of their work had been changed, making it much more difficult and time-consuming for them to produce each piece for which they were paid. Esther said, “I thought a strike was simply terrible. I was raised that [striking workers] had bombs in their pockets and were communists. But Oliver said, ‘go find out, go find out.” Of course, she found no bomb-throwing communists, just women who were struggling against massive odds to support themselves and their families. The next morning she was on the picket line with them.She didn’t stop there. She helped those workers win the concessions they were seeking in that strike, by organizing other concerned people into the “Citizens’ Committee of Concerned Women.” “Then I became a real labor activist,” she recalled. “I decided they had to have a voice, the working people. I felt the women were left out, they got the low end of everything, you see? And that was important to me.”

Peterson continued to organize women–first teachers in Massachusetts, then garment workers in New York. All the while, she was having and raising children, sometimes taking them with her as she tried to sign women up for unions, to show that she had the same childcare issues as they did. Eventually, she became a lobbyist for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, an occupation unheard of for a woman in the 1940s. She became good friends with John Kennedy.

While pregnant with her fourth child, she was lobbying for an increase in the minimum wage. A senator joked with her, “Esther, if it’s a boy we’ll call it Maxie for maximum hours, if it’s a girl we’ll call it Minnie for minimum wage.” Asked whether it was difficult to be not only a woman, but a pregnant woman in the all-boys club of the Senate and the lobbyists, Esther replied, “You know, the thing is that women can do things. Women can do things if they want to and the men didn’t mind my bulge.”

Esther’s subsequent career would take much longer than a blog post to describe–she established an international summer school for working women, she convinced President Kennedy to organize a Commission on the Status of Women (and to ask Eleanor Roosevelt to be the Chair, even though she had campaigned for Adlai Stevenson), was instrumental in passing the Equal Pay Bill of 1963 and in beginning the drive for married women’s right to own property. Eventually, she served as Kennedy’s Assistant Secretary of Labor for Labor Standards, and then as Consumer Advocate under President Carter. Under President Clinton (when she was in her 80s!), she served as a representative to the United Nations.

Hers was a practical, roll-up-the-sleeves kind of feminism and activism–there wasn’t much theorizing or fretting about women’s or workers’ status in her approach, just common sense and hard work to improve the lot of the people she could see around her who most needed help.

I was lucky enough to meet her just a few months before she died. Among other things, we talked about the Church. She had not been very “active” in Church for much of her life, and someone asked her if she still considered herself Mormon. She replied that she felt all of her work had grown from her convictions as a Mormon, that she was grateful for the heritage of a “can-do” spirit from her pioneer ancestors and for the faith she had learned as a child. “I’m as Mormon as can be, I just didn’t go in for all the folderol.”

So, for Labor Day, here’s to more good works and less folderol!!

Comments

  1. amen

  2. I had no idea Peterson was a mormon! Cool. Thanks for this.

  3. I hadn’t thought much about a positive connection between Mormonism and the labor movement…until three years ago, some die-hard labor supporters accidentally showed up at our Ward Labor Day picnic. The picnic was held in a large park with many labor picnics going on at the same time. It took a while for these folks to figure out they had crashed a Mormon gathering, partly because they fortuitously kept chatting with the handful of ward Democrats, who just played it cool. Now, thanks to Kristine’s post, if such a thing ever happens again (!), I will just start talking about Esther Peterson (Mormon labor).

    Sorry you had to hear this story three times, jab.

  4. Kristine–Many thanks for a wonderfully appropriate post on Labor Day! Esther Peterson was indeed a woman Utah and Mormons and Americans everywhere can be hugely proud of. Whenever I check the “sell by” date on a can of tuna, or read the nutritional realities of that box of cereal, I remember that we have both specifically because of Esther.

    I never met Esther, but I knew rather well her sister, Algie E. Baliff, of Provo, one of the great heroes of my life. I tried to pay Algie tribute in a short essay in my book Only When I Laugh, but I won’t threadjack the discussion of Esther to talk about Algie here, except to say, in the words of a wise old Southern deaconess, “If it was anything to do with justice, she was there.”

    As for Esther: should any BCC readers be in need of inspiration today, or in future be searching for something to spark a talk about, oh, the power of one person to effect change, or rising to the challenge, or “ask not what you country can do for you,” etc., I strongly recommend this link:
    http://www.lib.byu.edu/lectures/alr/Eggersten/1988.pdf.

    This is the complete text of a talk Esther Peterson gave at BYU in 1988, and I promise it will stir your blood with pride and resolution. It’s long (34 pages double-spaced), and worth every minute of your time. Thanks again, Kristine.

  5. As the son of two die hard New Dealers, Esther Peterson was a hero in our house. Although my parents are only mildly active in the church now as well as in the past, we took pride in our church association with that wonderful woman. Thanks for reminding us all of a truly great American – who just happened to be Mormon – who loved all Americans and proved it through her tireless efforts.

  6. Kristine,

    I thought I had posted a response to your Esther Peterson tribute, but apparently I neglected to do something crucial, such as hit the “Add My Comment” button. Trying again–just to say thank you for a very appropriate Labor Day post. I didn’t know Esther, but knew her sister Algie Baliff pretty well; she was one of my great heroes, and like her sister, a fierce, gracious fighter for justice.

    Almost every time I check a “sell by” date on a can of tuna, or look for the nutrition facts on a cereal box, I remember Esther, who was specifically responsible for both consumer aids.

    There is a wonderful speech by Esther Peterson available, a talk she gave at BYU in 1988. I recommend it highly, for a specific sense of Esther’s highly individual personality, and for general inspiration. Here’s the link:

    http://www.lib.byu.edu/lectures/alr/Eggersten/1988.pdf
    Thanks again.

  7. Thanks, Kris. A wonderful story. Current Mormons have organized MESJ, mormons for equality and social justice, my favorite person in the world spent a summer as a labor organizer (I married her), and a variety of other LDS are carrying the torch for Esther.

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