The Importance of Advocates

All of us, as Paul said to the Romans, sometimes do the very things we hate. We measure with wicked scales and bags of dishonest weights, and the consequences are just as Micah predicted: we eat and are not satisfied. The thing about injustice is that it harms everybody involved—both oppressor and oppressed—and yet the power dynamics of this relationship serve to perpetuate it. Oppressors enjoy the profits of deception, while the oppressed often lack means to improve their situation, no matter their personal qualities.

Such situations call for advocates to serve as mediators. What makes a good advocate? While Jesus is the model advocate, I believe that the life of Esther Eggertsen Peterson usefully illuminates what Jesus did for us all—both oppressors and oppressed.

Born in Provo in 1906 to Danish immigrants, Peterson had a formative experience at the age of 12. As she related it to an audience at BYU in 1988:

As a youngster I rode from Provo to Salt Lake City with some of my mother’s college student boarders who had been enlisted as strikebreakers during the railroad strike at the Salt Lake roundhouse. I still vividly remember being escorted through the picket line by police on horseback who made a path for our car by pushing back the strikers and their families. At one point our car stopped in the midst of the crowd and a thin woman with two small children caught my eye. “Why are you doing this to us?” she asked. I had no answer. [1]

This experience pushed Peterson to learn more about the lives and experiences of workers. She accomplished this in part by becoming one, working as a fruit picker and later as a labor organizer, and this work developed in her an empathy with the oppressed. Notwithstanding what she describes as the racist influence of Mormon teaching, she was fighting against racial discrimination by the 1930s. [2] Advocating equal pay for women in the 1940s, she insisted that the laborer is worthy of her hire! [3] Her persistence and integrity won her the position of Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Kennedy administration, making her the highest ranking woman in government at the time.

After leaving the White House, Peterson did something else controversial: she went to work for a large supermarket chain as a consumer advocate. Her labor activities had made her many enemies in the business sector, but this move also made many of her labor allies accuse her of selling out. Nevertheless, in this capacity she accomplished much good. She helped pioneer unit pricing, so that shoppers could, for instance, easily figure out which tube of toothpaste was the better deal. She also helped standardize package sizing, reducing the number of available sizes of toothpaste tubes from 57 to 5. [4]

Esther Peterson’s successful advocacy teaches us much about Jesus’. The first key is that, just as Peterson was one of the consumers for whom she advocated, he became like us, emptying himself into the form of a slave. His assumption of the human condition wins our love, just as did King Benjamin’s work of laboring with his own hands so that he could serve his people. Second, Jesus committed fully to God, using his own sufferings and death as leverage to plead, “Spare these my brethren [and sisters] who have believed on my name.” Peterson’s husband Oliver would say to her, “When you’re being attacked from both sides, you are better able to stand upright.” [5] Jesus has integrity as our mediator because both sides, the human and the divine, have full claim on him.

If we want our advocates to work for us, though, we have to listen to them: Psalm 81 expresses God’s discontent toward the people from whose shoulders he had lifted so many burdens. Esther Peterson, while honoring the sense of fairness instilled in her by her Utah upbringing, also came to see her early life there as sheltered. While honoring Alice Louise Reynolds’ devotion to women’s equality, Peterson notes: “In Utah, I might add, advocacy of equality of opportunity was often regarded as an attack on the structure of family life and tradition.” [6] At the same time, Peterson opposed the Equal Rights Amendment because it paid insufficient attention to the needs of black and lower class women. [7]

Near the end of her life Peterson wrote about her relationship to Mormonism in her memoir:

I have not been an ideal Mormon. I moved east, drank coffee, played cards, and married a socialist who smoked a pipe—but I always lived by the principles that remain the foundation of the church. Throughout my life I have honestly tried to follow my own code of ethics—one that was formed by my parents and the Mormon hymns I sang as a girl. I challenged—but did not abandon—the moral code of the church during my years as an activist. And so, when other people ask me, “Are you a good Mormon?” I must smile and reply, “This is my life, now you decide.” [8]

On another occasion, she answered that question by saying, “I’m as Mormon as can be, I just didn’t go in for all the folderol.” [9] These statements, too, teach us something about advocates who can be successful mediators: while such people possess unquestionably firm moral convictions, they often eschew some of the externalities that link those convictions to specific communities. This enables them to travel back and forth between different worlds, as when Peterson was able to campaign effectively for JFK in Utah (among many other similar occasions). [10] Learning to hold fast to the things that matter while being flexible about the folderol is an important lesson to learn from Peterson, but also from Jesus, who struck the balance of being a good Jew rooted in the Shema and the biblical ethic of care for the underprivileged while puncturing what he perceived to be some of the false trappings that had grown up around Judaism.

May we, like Jesus and Esther Peterson, not get so caught up in the smaller matters of communal boundary-policing that we forget to understand and advocate for the oppressed and work together with them toward a more peaceful, loving world. Thus runs the road to Zion: let us follow it!

To learn more about Peterson’s life, see her highly engaging memoir Restless (cited below), but also her New York Times obituary, as well as biographical sketches at Kristine’s BCC post, the State of Utah website, the AFL-CIO website, and the American National Biography site.

MLP

MLP

Mormon Lectionary Project

Esther Eggertsen Peterson, 1997

Micah 6:9-16 (NRSV); Psalm 81 (NRSV); Luke 10:1-12 (NRSV); Philippians 2:1-11 (NRSV)Mosiah 2:10-17; D&C 45:1-5

The Collect: O most equitable Father, who sent thy Son Jesus Christ to advocate for us before the bar of thy justice: grant that we, like thy servant Esther Eggertsen Peterson, might join together in mercy with the oppressed of the earth to bring justice to all, that with no poor among us we may become one people as thou art One God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, worlds without end. Amen.

For the music, here is a Mormon hymn whose refrain—”Do what is right, let the consequence follow”—inspired Esther Peterson throughout her life:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-RRkWAtCw4]

Notes

[1] Esther Peterson, “First Annual Alice Louise Reynolds Lecture,” Friends of the Brigham Young University Library 32 (1988): 22-23.

[2] Esther Peterson, Restless: The Memoirs of Labor and Consumer Advocate Esther Peterson (Washington, DC: Caring Publishing, 1995), 42-44.

[3] See ibid., 94, where Peterson describes successfully fighting back against a union’s attempt to pay her $2000 less in annual salary than her male predecessor.

[4] Ibid., 154.

[5] Peterson, “Reynolds Lecture,” 28; see also Restless,  131.

[6] Ibid., 26.

[7]  Peterson, Restless, 103.

[8] Ibid., 189.

[9] Quoted in this post by Kristine.

[10] Peterson, Restless, 95-96.

Comments

  1. I was not familiar with Ester Peterson’s work, so thank you for highlighting her career.

  2. Great stuff, Jason. Thanks for bringing Esther out of the shadows just a bit again.

  3. Love this. Thank you.

  4. Going to be pondering this for quite a while. Oh to have her convictions of soul. I worry far too much.

  5. There is so much to consider in this post, Jason. Thank you.

  6. Terrific! What a fantastic example of Mormonism, truly lived, without the folderol. I greatly appreciate both the tribute to Peterson and the reminder that Jesus is the ultimate advocate whose example we should strive to follow as doggedly as she did. This is truly soul-expanding stuff that calls me to repentance and greater faith.

  7. I learned about her from her labor writings, and somehow missed that she was LDS. I have always considered her to be a woman ahead of her time, who couldn’t figure out what was wrong with the world that it wasn’t caught up. What a treat to find more parallels with her life and work.

    Amen.

  8. Nice examples. Thanks!

  9. Esther was my great grandmothers sister. I think a very open upbringing with parents who were educators was key for esther. Very interesting to read family memories:

    Section d1 (pg 295 I think) has a lot devoted to Esther’s mother anne Grethe Nielson, and you can see where it comes from. D35 has a section on Esther as well.

  10. Thanks for sharing that family history! As a descendant of Danish immigrants myself, and as a former Danish missionary, I especially loved the pictures. Above all, I’m happy to know that someone from Esther Peterson’s family has found my tribute. I’ve really come to admire her!

  11. What a great example of the beauty of an advocate for goodness. This is pure religion, to acknowledge the communal boundaries, but look past them, as a Good Samaritan, to just do what is good and right, and advocate for others who need it.

  12. This is awesome, thank you so much.

  13. I love this. “Flexible about the folderol” is the type of Mormonism at which I have arrived, and have never felt closer the Saviour in my life. And when one stops judging the oppressed and instead commits to simply loving them wherever they are at, miracles happen. Thank you so much for writing about this exemplary life.