In the pantheon of 20th Century American leaders, Esther Peterson, who passed away Saturday at the age of 91, occupied a uniquely versatile place. Few if any individuals made so many significant contributions for so long on behalf of workers, consumers and women in so many diverse arenas-including government, civic and business.
Her range included fair labor standards, equal pay for women, consumer justice here and abroad. She was an early, vigorous and persistent lobbyist, whether she was inside or outside of government, for structural representation of consumer interests before regulatory agencies and the courts.
One of the secrets of Esther Peterson’s ability to lift horizons and push frontiers was never to rest on her laurels. No matter how many government posts–special advisor to several Presidents and assistant secretary of Labor under President Kennedy–no matter her pioneering role as consumer representative at Giant Foods, she kept taking on new challenges.
In her late Seventies, she sparked the International Organization of Consumers Union at the United Nations and persuaded that body to pass the Consumer Protection Guidelines–opposed by the Reagan Administration–which have stimulated passage of new consumer laws on three Continents.
Again, over the objections of Reagan, she got the UN General Assembly to approve the creation of a list of banned or restricted products in one country or another that alerted many nations to the international trafficking in such dangerous items.
This former Republican from Utah had two major disappointments. One was the narrow failure in 1978 by the House of Representatives to pass the bill establishing a strong consumer protection agency that could take regulatory agencies to court for not enforcing their laws. Jimmy Carter, who adored and respected Ms. Peterson, did not put enough White House muscle behind this proposal he often touted during his campaign for the Presidency.
The other loss was the long worked-on United Nations Code of Conduct for Transnational Corporations. This effort by many nations was blocked by lobbies from Big Business and the Reagan White House.
Nobody could bridge the gaps between trade unions, consumer groups and government officials the way Esther Peterson could, because she had worked on behalf of all of them at various times and had earned their trust. One result was the establishment of the Consumer Federation of America which is a coalition of many labor unions and consumer associations.
She had a remarkable mix of personality and character traits which, I believe, made possible so many productive careers and accomplishments. She was not seized with ambition or intrigue or chronic temper. Never self‑ righteous in her fight for social justice, she was unfailingly cordial and gentle, but always pressing for results.
One of the Peterson trademarks, on meeting people, was to ask for their opinion or judgment on a pending proposal or struggle. Listening for insights was a key asset. She relished in being asked to do things and over half a century gave the word “lobbyist” a better image because of the many big causes for which she lobbied.
Esther Peterson formed her fundamental views about how an economy should work, which is as if people mattered most, from her teaching at labor schools for women in the Thirties and from the many rallies and public gatherings she attended during the Depression with her husband, Oliver Peterson.
This complete public servant and public citizen did it all, raising four children, taking loving care of her husband who was stricken by cancer for years, and elevating the standards of living and justice by her work, her inspiring example and the institutions that survive her.
It has been said that the only true ageing is the erosion of one’s ideals. A measure of Esther Peterson’s ageless human energy was the title she chose for her 1995 memoirs. She called her autobiography–“Restless.”