Esther Peterson: History’s Divine Dames

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Heart-shaped pockets made a difference in the amount you earn today. In the early 1930s, a garment worker strike kept many of teacher Esther Peterson’s students away from their classes at a Boston YWCA. What came to be known as the Heartbreakers Strike arose when girls who earned a paltry $1.32 per dozen dresses that they sewed, had their wages docked because they could not sew a new heart-shaped pocket design as quickly as they’d sewn the previous square-shaped pockets. Peterson, enraged by the unfairness, joined her students on the picket line, and a significant American activist was born. 

After working as an organizer for the American Federation of Teachers, Peterson became the first lobbyist for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union (ACWU). At one of the first lobbyist meetings she attended in Washington, DC, the men stood when she entered the room. “Please don’t stand up for me,” Peterson told them, “I don’t intend to stand up for you.” 

One of her first projects was to try to get the minimum wage raised from 40¢ to 75¢ an hour. She also began working with a young representative, John F. Kennedy, Jr. When he became President, Kennedy appointed her head of the Women’s Bureau in the Department of Labor. 

At a time when employment ads were routinely separated by gender in newspapers, she established the President’s Commission on the Status of Women. The commission’s final report was a national best seller. It addressed the lack of daycare for working parents, equal pay for equal work, and women clustered in low-wage work. 

Peterson served under Presidents Johnson and Carter as Special Assistance for Consumer Affairs. In this position, she revolutionized the food industry by developing “sell by” dates on perishables, nutritional laboring, and unit pricing that allowed consumers to compare the costs of similar products. 

During her career, Peterson raised four children. When they were young, she said that at one point she earned $15 a week but paid someone else $20 a week to help care for them. In 1981, Peterson won the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She died in 1997. 

Read some divine data in a related story about equal pay.

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