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!!