The Delaware Women's Hall of Fame

Year Honored: 1997

Birth: 1950

Biography

Karen E. Peterson was one of the youngest people and first woman to be elected New Castle County Council President at age 30. She was the only woman on the group and did not listen when the men attempted to tell her how to vote. The men of the group proceeded to call her father to convince him, though he also refused saying, “I told them I didn’t control [her] the first 30 years, and I don’t control [her] now.” She was also the only person on the group not allowed to hire her own aid, so she did the work of two people during her tenure. Despite the obstacles, Peterson managed to address some of the gender disparity in New Castle County.

In her role as President, Peterson sponsored more than 600 pieces of legislation, many of them dealing with discrimination against women and minorities. She was the primary sponsor of the successful Pay Equity Legislation requiring that woman county employees are paid the same wages as men for “comparable” work and that minority workers are also paid the same. She also sponsored legislation requiring New Castle County to include the wife’s name on property.

Peterson was elected to the Delaware State Senate in 2002. She helped to author Delaware’s Child Labor Act, one of the strictest child labor acts in the United States, as well as the Prevailing Wage Act, the Minimum Wage Act, the Wage Payment and Collection Act, and ensured that the Worker’s Compensation Act was gender neutral. Peterson was also an outspoken advocate for regular increases in the minimum wage. She served on the Committees for Energy and Transit, Veterans Affairs, and Health and Social Services. She also sponsored bills regarding the Freedom of Information Act, Agriculture, and Bankruptcy and Insolvency.

In 2012, Peterson became the first openly gay member of the State Legislature in Delaware during arguments in the state legislature on whether or not to legalize gay marriage. In her statement to the assembly, she said “I think it’s so interesting that my bishop would send a priest here today to rail against same-sex marriage. Just a couple of weeks ago, we debated the death penalty. My bishop didn’t see fit to send a priest here to speak against killing people, but rails against people loving each other. The irony is not lost on me… Neither of us chose to be gay, anymore than heterosexual people chose to be straight. Nobody gets to make those decisions anymore than we decide to be tall, short, black, or white. We are what God made us. We don’t need to be fixed. We’re not broken." The bill passed, and Peterson and her partner of 24 years, Vikki, were the first same-sex couple to legally marry in Delaware.

Peterson has a number of other firsts in Delaware, including the first woman administrator of Labor Law Enforcement and the first woman appointed as director of the Division of Industrial Affairs for the Delaware Department of Labor.
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Sources and Additional Readings

Lavender, P. (2013, May 7). State senator comes out during Gay marriage debate: Report. HuffPost. Retrieved January 12, 2022, from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/karen-peterson-gay_n_3232462

Newman, M. (2018, April 19). 3 Delaware women reflect on how they broke into 'good ol' boys club'. The News Journal. Retrieved January 12, 2022, from https://www.delawareonline.com/story/life/2018/04/19/delaware-women-equal-rights-amendment/521822002/

Robert J. Voshell collection of Delaware political ephemera scrapbooks. Manuscript and Archival Collection Finding Aids. (n.d.). Retrieved January 12, 2022, from https://library.udel.edu/special/findaids/view?docId=ead%2Fmss0093_0119.xml%3Bquery

TheAdvocateMag. (2013, May 7). Marriage equality passes in Delaware. ADVOCATE. Retrieved January 12, 2022, from https://www.advocate.com/politics/marriage-equality/2013/05/07/marriage-equality-passes-delaware

 
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