12/13/2013 07:20 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Honoring a Women's Rights Pioneer


The Labor Department's Hall of Honor recognizes men and women -- like Cesar Chavez, Helen Keller and the Workers of the Memphis Sanitation Strike -- who have made invaluable contributions to the welfare of American workers. It's rare, however, that we get to bestow the distinction on one of our own, a leader from within the department.

Our latest inductee, Esther Peterson, couldn't be more deserving. She was a trailblazer and a glass ceiling shatterer, one of the 20th century's most effective champions for women's rights at work. The top-ranking woman in the Kennedy administration, Peterson ran the Women's Bureau and held many other top positions at the Labor Department (the department's child care center is named for her). Before her federal service, she had a long career in the labor movement, rising to become the first woman to be an AFL-CIO lobbyist. In her later years, she emerged as a leading consumer advocate, working on issues like food labeling.

In 1961, President Kennedy charged Peterson with leading the President's Commission on the Status of Women. The commission's groundbreaking report made bold recommendations about the role of women in work and society. With Peterson's voice at the center, it was a call to action -- on equal pay, job discrimination, child care and other issues -- to which the nation would respond in the subsequent years.

The theme of the Labor Department's centennial is "Then, Now, Next." So in honoring Esther Peterson, we look not just to the past but to the future, acknowledging with honesty and a sense of purpose the lingering challenges we still face and the distance we've yet to travel before equality is truly a reality in the lives of all women. As long as women are paid 77 cents for every dollar earned by their male peers,* there is plenty of work still to do.

My plan was to formally induct Esther Peterson during a day full of panels and presentations commemorating the 50th anniversary of the commission's "American Women" report and addressing the nation's unfinished business on women's rights. Unfortunately, we had to postpone the event due to the government shutdown. Then, on the rescheduled date of Dec. 10, the federal government was again closed due to a winter storm.

By all accounts, however, Esther Peterson was adaptable and unpretentious, more than capable of rolling with the punches. If she were alive, she would surely tell us not to worry about pomp and ceremony, and urge us instead to get down to the business of realizing the full promise of the nation's ideals.

So let's do just that. For her courageous advocacy on behalf of women and all American workers, I am pleased to announce the induction of Esther Peterson into the Labor Department's Hall of Honor. Now, let's honor her further by continuing to advance the values to which she dedicated her life.

*According to the U.S. Census Bureau. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures put the number closer to 81 cents per dollar. For more information on how those numbers are calculated, see "Myth Busting the Pay Gap."