On June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act to protect against sex-base wage discrimination. One of the driving forces behind the new act was Esther Eggertsen Peterson, the highest-ranking woman in JFK’s administration.

Kennedy appointed Peterson as head of the Women’s Bureau in the Department of Labor at the beginning of his term, and promoted her to assistant secretary of Labor in 1963. In a 1970 interview about her work for JFK’s administration, she recalled advocating for the equal pay bill even though it wasn’t at the top of the White House’s agenda.

“Equal pay was never top priority,” she said. “[The White House] helped me at certain times, but I’ve literally carried that bill up.”

Joining JFK's Administration

Peterson first met Kennedy in the late 1940s when he was a new member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and she was a legislative representative for Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. She got to know him while lobbying for an increase in the minimum wage at a time when he was still learning about legislative procedure.

“She was, in essence, his tutor on the legislative process,” says Janet Martin, a government professor at Bowdoin College and author of The Presidency and Women: Promise, Performance, and Illusion.

Peterson worked with JFK again in the late 1950s, when he was a U.S. senator and she took a job as a lobbyist for the Industrial Union Department of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, or AFL-CIO. When Kennedy became president, he chose her for director of the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau.

Based on Peterson’s suggestion, JFK established the President’s Commission on the Status of Women on December 14, 1961. The commission, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt (with Peterson serving as executive vice chairman), publicly endorsed the concept of equal pay but did not specifically endorse any legislation. Instead, it was the Women’s Bureau that took an active role in lobbying for a bill addressing sex-based wage discrimination.

Peterson's Push for Equal Pay

The Equal Pay Act of 1963 was not the first time anyone had tried to secure equal pay for women. Politicians’ interest in the issue dates back to at least 1896, when it appeared on the Republican Party platform. As a senator in 1957, JFK co-sponsored an equal pay bill. Yet as Martin points out, Kennedy never held hearings on his bill, suggesting that, while he supported the issue, it wasn’t necessarily a priority for him.

In the 1970 interview about her work for Kennedy, Peterson seemed to confirm as much. She said that the White House “didn’t interfere” with the Women’s Bureau’s work on an equal pay bill: “We were given the responsibility and we lobbied it through.” When asked whether the bill was a top priority for the White House, she replied, “No. We didn’t get help from them… We got the bill through ourselves, frankly.”

Peterson played a role in putting together the testimony for hearings on the equal pay bill in 1962, and also liaised with other groups to lobby members of Congress to support the bill. The next year, Congress passed the bill, which amended the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to provide protections from sex-based wage discrimination. However, the final version was a little different than what Peterson had advocated for.

Originally, she wanted the bill to guarantee “equal pay for comparable work.” Instead, the version that Congress passed used the words “equal pay for equal work.” In her 1970 interview, she said she thought the Equal Pay Act still required “some strengthening amendments.” 

A 2022 report by the Pew Research Center showed pay gaps based on gender, race and ethnicity persisted, with Black women earning 70 percent as much as white men, and Hispanic women earning 65 percent as much. In 2023, Congress considered but did not pass a proposed Paycheck Fairness Act to strengthen the Equal Pay Act. 

Later Work: Consumer Rights, Child Care Advocacy

Peterson had a long career working on a range of issues. After JFK’s assassination on November 22, 1963, she continued to work for Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration. He appointed her as special assistant to the president for Consumer Affairs, a role she returned to during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. In this position, she fought for food labels to list nutritional information and for grocery store shelves to identify a product’s price per unit, so that consumers could easily compare prices on different-sized items.

As a working mother of four who had paid for child care, Peterson also advocated for access to this service. On October 11, 1963, the President’s Commission on the Status of Women presented its report, titled “American Women,” to President Kennedy. The report covered topics like women’s employment, education and civic participation, including women’s inclusion on juries. Additionally, it discussed the need for child care, a service the U.S. government had funded during World War II but stopped funding after the war despite calls for child care programs to continue.

“Child care services are needed in all communities, for children of all kinds of families,” the report stated. “In putting major emphasis on this need, the Commission affirms that child care facilities are essential for women in many different circumstances, whether they work outside the home or not.”

The report’s recommendation did not lead to any legislative push for child care and it remains a prominent issue. A 2024 survey by Care.com found that U.S. parents spend one-quarter of their income on child care.

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