Meet the Utah woman who broke with tradition and served under 3 U.S. presidents

Esther Peterson also served under 3 U.S. presidents and changed the way we buy groceries.

(John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum) Utah native Esther Peterson, front right, hands John F. Kennedy the final report of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women on Oct. 11, 1963.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series examining the status of Utah women. Read the editorial explaining the project and fact checks on issues that typically drive the state’s ranking as the nation’s worst place for women. Take the quiz to see if you can tell whether a statement was said about Utah women in 1964 or 2019.

Look around your kitchen and you will see the legacy of Esther Eggertsen Peterson, a Utah woman who served in national roles under three U.S. presidents.

See that label on your cereal box listing the ingredients and nutritional information? Or the “sell before” date on that gallon of milk in your fridge? Peterson was instrumental in creating those.

She also was a driving force in passing the Equal Pay Act of 1963; fought for truth in advertising; served as the highest-ranking woman in President John F. Kennedy’s administration; and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom “for her work in helping consumers make better informed purchasing decisions,” according to Better Days 2020, a nonprofit that promotes Utah women’s history.

“Esther Peterson has had more impact on our lives than any other living woman,” Claudia Harris, an associate professor at Brigham Young University, told The Salt Lake Tribune in 1995.

Breaking with tradition

Born in Provo in 1906, Peterson graduated from Brigham Young University and taught for a couple of years in Cedar City. When her father died, “it was Danish custom for the youngest daughter to stay home and care for the parents,” according to the 1995 Tribune article. “As she often did in later years, Esther broke with the tradition.”

“It was a way out,” Peterson told The Tribune. “After Father died, Mother was very dependent on me. I needed to get away. Also I was going steady with a young man and not sure I wanted to commit. He was going on a mission for the LDS Church and wanted me to wait. I applied to graduate school and moved to New York.”

There, Peterson met her husband, Oliver Peterson. She “was a conservative Mormon Republican from Utah,” while he was " a socialist who drank coffee and smoked a pipe,” according to a biography by the nonprofit Better Days 2020. The fact that Esther married him “speaks a lot” about her willingness to listen and learn from people who had different experiences than her, said Naomi Watkins, who wrote the piece.

After moving to Boston, Peterson volunteered at a chapter of the YWCA. One night, many of her students didn’t show up to class “because of an impending labor strike,” Watkins wrote.

Peterson learned that one student, a 16-year-old, was working at a table at her home with her mother and younger siblings, earning $1.32 per dozen dresses they made. The company they worked for had recently “changed the pocket design on the dresses from a square to a heart-shape,” according to Watkins’ research, “making it a more time-consuming task and thereby decreasing their wages.”

The next day, Peterson joined the garment workers on the picket line in the “Heartbreakers Strike.”

“That totally changes her life trajectory and really becomes the basis of her work,” Watkins said.

Advocating for women

After moving to Washington, D.C., in the 1940s, Peterson became a lobbyist for the National Labor Relations Board, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Unions, and, later, the AFL-CIO.

“At her first lobbyists’ meeting, all the men stood up when she walked in,” Watkins wrote. “Peterson didn’t want to be treated differently and announced, ‘Please don’t stand up for me. I don’t intend to stand up for you.’”

“She’s pretty no-nonsense, but she also seems to have a pretty great sense of humor,” said Watkins.

President John F. Kennedy nominated Peterson to be the Assistant Secretary of Labor and the director of the United States Women’s Bureau in his administration, and it was at Peterson’s suggestion that Kennedy created the President’s Commission on the Status of Women in 1961.

(The Salt Lake Tribune) Esther Peterson, center, in 1961.

Led by Peterson and Eleanor Roosevelt, the commission studied “discrimination against women and ways to eliminate it,” as well as “legislation and services that would help women more easily fulfill their roles, whether as housewives, workers, or citizens,” according to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

Multiple states followed suit, creating their own commissions to study the status of women. Utah’s group started in 1964, and continued under different names over the following decades. (The Tribune used a report from this commission to create this quiz.)

Reading through a 1963 report created by Peterson’s team, Watkins said she was struck “how timely” the issues that they examined “still are,” such as child care, equal pay and female political representation.

Peterson experienced some these hurdles herself as the mother of four children. At one point, she “discovered the cost of child care exceeded her paid wages,” Watkins wrote, leading to her to “fight for legislation to strengthen the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established minimum wages and work hours, and she also worked to regulate overtime pay and child labor.”

Empowering consumers

During Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, Peterson served as Special Assistant for Consumer Affairs, according to Watkins, and she did similar work for Jimmy Carter’s administration.

Peterson believed that “businesses need to be honest in what they’re portraying to customers,” Watkins said, so that “consumers can make educated decisions.” In a 1964 Tribune article, Peterson described the piles of letters she received from people across the country, complaining about deceptive packaging.

“One Texan suggested she get a pint of ice cream and let it melt to discover how much air is in it,” The Tribune reported.

“I sometimes ask a butcher to unwrap a package of meat to see if there’s too much bone hidden under the top,” Peterson told the newspaper in another article in 1964.

She added, “I’d like to see more women speak up, ring the butcher’s bell.”

(The Salt Lake Tribune) Esther Peterson photographed in 1977.

Among her later achievements, Peterson worked as the vice president for consumer affairs at Giant Food Corporation and was president of the National Consumers League. In 1993, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Reflecting on her career, an 88-year-old Peterson told The Tribune that while she had lived away from Utah for most of her life, “her heart is in the West.” A painting of Mount Timpanogos hung in Peterson’s D.C. living room, the article noted.

Peterson died in 1997 at age 91, leaving behind “a remarkable legacy that touches every American who works for a living, borrows money and buys groceries,” according to The Tribune.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.