Peterson, Esther (1906–1997)

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Peterson, Esther (1906–1997)

American labor activist and U.S. government official. Born Esther Eggertsen in Provo, Utah, on December 9, 1906; died on December 21, 1997; daughter of Lars Eggertsen and Annie (Nielsen) Eggertsen; Brigham Young University, B.A., 1927; Columbia University Teachers College, M.A., 1930; married Oliver A. Peterson, in 1932; children: Eric, Iver, Lars, and Karen.

Esther Peterson was born Esther Eggertsen in 1906 and grew up with her three sisters and two brothers in Provo, Utah; their grandparents were Danish immigrants who had walked from Omaha to Salt Lake City to join the Mormon Church. Following her graduation from Brigham Young University, Peterson taught physical education at Branch Agricultural College in Cedar City, Utah. She then enrolled at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York. While there, the conservative Peterson had a perception shift while attending meetings of the American Federation of Labor with her future husband, Oliver Peterson. She also met Norman Thomas and David Dubinsky.

From 1930 to 1936, she taught at the Winsor School in Back Bay, Boston, a college prep school for girls. She also volunteered to teach in the industrial department of the local YWCA on Thursday evenings. "I came face to face for the first time with strikes and strikers," she told an interviewer for the Christian Science Monitor. "These girls were receiving $1.32 for every dozen dresses they turned out, and the work involved the sewing on of a square pocket. When they were suddenly ordered to make the pocket heart-shaped, the girls demanded more money. It took more time to sew on a heart than a square, and they were paid by the piece. It was called the heart-break strike, and I've never forgotten it."

Peterson was an assistant in economics at Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers in industry (1932–39); taught at the Hudson Shore Labor School in Esopus, New York; held temporary positions at the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union and the American Federation of Teachers; was assistant director of education for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (1939–44) and served as their Washington legislative representative (1945–48). She also worked with the Swedish Confederation of Trade Unions while living with her husband abroad (1948–52). It was there that she became a good friend of Sigrid Ekendahl, a leading Swedish trade unionist.

When her husband was transferred to Brussels (1952–57), Peterson worked with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and helped organize their first international school for working women at LaBrevière near Paris. Returning from Europe, the Petersons moved to Washington, D.C., where Esther lobbied for the AFL-CIO (1958–61). In 1961, she was invited to join John F. Kennedy's "little cabinet" as assistant secretary of labor and director of the Women's Bureau in the U.S. Department

of Labor. At that time, Esther Peterson was the highest ranking woman in the U.S. government.


Christian Science Monitor. February 27, 1961.

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Peterson, Esther (1906–1997)

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