For Labor Day–Remembering Esther Peterson

September 6, 2004 | 13 comments
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Before T&S is reduced entirely to partisan bickering and banter among Yankees fans (it’s OK, guys, I understand–not everyone is noble enough to endure the agonies of Red Sox fandom), 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 Massachussetts, 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!!

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13 Responses to For Labor Day–Remembering Esther Peterson

  1. Nate Oman on September 6, 2004 at 5:42 pm

    No doubt Esther Petersen was an impressive woman, but I am really puzzled by your claim that she was part of the beginning of the drive to allow married women to own property. Under the common law doctrine of coventure, a married woman could not independently own property. This doctrine was abolished by what were know as Married Womens Property Acts. However, the first of these acts was passed by Mississippi in 1839 and most states had abolished coventure by 1895. Of course, there are certain sorts of marital property that can only be owned by a couple (eg tenancy in the entirety, community property) which persist today, but the legal disability associated with such property falls more or less equally on both spouses.

    Thus, I am not really sure what Kristine is talking about here.

  2. Kristine on September 6, 2004 at 6:23 pm

    Sorry, that was a very bad bit of paraphrasing–what Roberts says (which I am unqualified to critique, but which Nate will undoubtedly correct as necessary) is this: “The commission [on women’s Status] also…attacked the issue of property rights for women. …Some states gave husbands complete control of their wives’ earnings, some prohibited direct inheritance by married women, some forbade women to go into business for themselves without the permission of the court.”

    So, part of the drive to *broaden* women’s property rights?

    Thanks, Nate.

  3. lyle on September 6, 2004 at 6:55 pm

    Hm. Good works v. Eternal Salvation. Tough call.

  4. Kristine on September 6, 2004 at 7:27 pm

    I hesitate to ask, lyle, but what do you mean? Just a generic comment on the insufficiency of good works?

  5. lyle on September 6, 2004 at 8:41 pm

    While not the only “possible” conclusion; your thread suggests that she found living the Gospel in opposition to her labor mobilization/good works. While apparently she felt her good works were based/inspired by the gospel; I’m left wondering if she is a very good example to hold up. Hence…in her life, she appears to have choosen good works (much like the BYU professor who lost his job cuz he preferred working in a soup kitchen to attending his church meetings) over exaltation. Just a thought.

  6. Kristine on September 6, 2004 at 8:46 pm

    Does exaltation require church attendance?

  7. Dan Richards on September 6, 2004 at 11:09 pm

    From dictionary.com–

    folderol (n)
    1: nonsensical talk or writing [syn: rubbish, tripe, trumpery, trash, wish-wash, applesauce, codswallop]
    2: ornamental objects of no great value [syn: falderal, frills, gimcrackery, gimcracks, nonsense, trumpery]

    Lyle–Sister Peterson clearly felt that her labor activism was in harmony with the Gospel. Her inactivity in the church may have been a function of any number of things, including lack of spousal support and isolation. I doubt that 1930s Boston had the thriving Mormon community it has today, and she may have simply drifted away as her other commitments increased.

  8. Jeremy on September 6, 2004 at 11:31 pm

    Lyle,

    I happen to know the professor of whom you speak, and the circumstances of that person’s leaving BYU were considerably more complex than you describe. In that case, as in that of Esther Peterson, it is probably neither your nor my business to cast specific judgement as to the person’s eternal prospects based solely on Sunday attendance.

  9. Ethesis (Stephen M) on September 6, 2004 at 11:39 pm

    Well, I’m finally getting to where I can deal with the comment format.

    I had wondered about her status with the Church when I saw the last article I had read about her.

    What is the story about her husband? How long did he last (since he seems to drop out of the picture — did he die, leave, get discarded, stay around and support her until he aged out, etc)? And the kids? Any of them LDS now, or has that gone the way of the folderol?

    Just curious if anyone knows. I couldn’t find any of that last time I looked, but I only spent an hour or so on it.

  10. Jim F. on September 6, 2004 at 11:46 pm

    I admire Esther Peterson considerably, but I wonder what she included under “folderol.” Since it was part of her explanation of her lack of activity in the Church (something that is ultimately none of my business), my suspicion is that her definition was broader than most of ours would be. So I can’t agree with her (or Kristine? –I don’t know) that we ought to have less of the folderol, though I agree with both that we ought to have more good works.

    Kristine asks, “Does exaltation require Church attendance?” For some, I think it does, namely for those who have the Gospel and a testimony as well as the opportunities to attend–and the responsibilities that attendance brings. It isn’t necessarily easy to decide who has the opportunity and who does not, so we cannot judge the situations that others are in. But I can say fairly confidently that my exaltation requires Church attendance.

  11. Kristine on September 7, 2004 at 8:05 am

    Lyle, all, I don’t know what her church activity level was, or why she wasn’t fully involved in her ward. From my one conversation with her, I think that she had warm feelings towards the church, and I think she did attend at least occasionally. And lyle, I don’t think that she (or I) suggested that her work was somehow in conflict with church activity and she had chosen one over the other.

    Her marriage was, as far as I know, very happy–her husband was also active in labor causes, and she moved from Boston to New York to D.C. to Sweden and back to D.C. because of his career. She was, in most ways, a very traditional wife. He was several years older than she and died many years before she did. I don’t know about their children’s religious proclivities.

    Finally, I did not mean to suggest that church activity is “folderol.” I’m not sure how important it is to anyone’s exaltation, but I’m not saying it’s insignificant. The conversation leading up to the “folderol” remark had also included talking about blacks and the priesthood, and women’s roles in the church and staying in the church while hoping for change, as Esther’s sisters had done. I think she was saying she just didn’t spend any energy on the kinds of cultural issues that can be so divisive in the Church–to her, Mormonism was about doing. I don’t think that’s such a stretch.

  12. Ashleigh on September 7, 2004 at 5:12 pm

    Thanks Kristine,
    I do love more tough girl s/heroes to add to my little collection! Do you think they’ll come out Esther Peterson action figures anytime soon?

  13. Nate Oman on September 7, 2004 at 9:25 pm

    I am curious about what laws were at issue here. The business thing I have never heard before. I suspect that the earnings thing had to do with community property laws. All wages (male and female) become community property. Some states still granted husband unilateral control of community property into the 1950s and 1960s. (I spent two weeks working on a cases that hinged in part on the shift in California law on this point.) I suspect that the inheritance issues were also tied to community property. Were female inheritance treated like wages rather than seperate property in some states? Hmmm…

    Sorry. I am a law geek, so I find this genuinely interesting….