Helen Nelson has described herself as "an economist by training and a
housewife by instinct". with a focus on protecting the American
consumer, Helen Nelson has spent over thirty-five years dedicated to adding
fairness to the marketplace. Her professional life has been spent
advocating in the public spotlight, holding news conferences, testifying before
Congress, talking with Governors and Presidents, addressing countless audiences
and appearing on national television.
Yet this public life began in 1913 on a small, isolated family farm in
Colorado. she was the fourth of the five children (and the only girl) of
Delton H.R. Ewing and Edith Abbott Ewing. She remembers it as "a good
life. We were a close family and all worked together." Helen
remembers helping with the chickens and turning eggs in the incubator.
Free time was spent playing in open fields alone, with her brothers or with
neighboring farm children. It was a hard life, though. Many farm
families during the Great Depression (and Dustbowl) years often did not have
enough food. Helen remembers that sometimes life was such that the farm
animals went hungry. It did give her a resolve: "Not to be poor again
if I could help it."
These years gave her some important mentors. Helen feels that the people
that influenced her the most were her mother and father. She also remembers
two aunts who were both professional women. "I admired them; and they
caused me to understand that it (a professional life) was possible for
That professional life began at the University of Colorado, where she graduated
with Phi Beta Kappa honors in economics. She then received a scholarship
to Mills College, where she achieved her masters degree. She went on to
advanced graduate work at the University of California under the mentorship of
economy professor Dr. Emily Huntington, an internationally-known consumer
specialist. Working as Dr. Huntington's research assistant at the Heller
Committee for Research in Social Economics, Helen became committed to the ideals
of fairness for the American worker/consumer.
By 1938, Helen was working at the California Department of Employment as manager
of unemployment claims. It was an exciting time to be involved with
employment issues, for this was the time when unemployment insurances was just
beginning. It was also enjoyable, for it was here that she met her
husband, Nathan Nelson. She describes him as a man who was "fun and
intelligent and educated and handsome!" They were married in 1942,
before he reported for military duty at Fort Ord during World War II.
In order to be with her husband, Helen transferred employment to the War
Production Board in Washington, D.C. After the war, Helen and Nathan
returned to the Bay Area, where she continued her work in labor economics
through employment with the state's Labor Statistics Division, in the Department
of Industrial Relations. While in this position, as Assistant Chief of the
department, Helen was involved with a study of the cost of living of single
working women. Her research was later used by the Industrial Welfare
Commission to set a fair standard for the minimum wage.
It was California Governor Edmund "Pat" Brown who enticed Helen away
from her ten-year tenure with Industrial Relations and started her public career
as a consumer advocate. He appointed her in 1959 as the state's first Consumer
Counsel (an office he had promised to create when he campaigned for the
governorship in 1958.) The Consumer Counsel's position was the first of
its kind in the country. Her responsibilities included working with
various groups, such as labor unions, the NAACP, the women's organizations to
get them to lobby their legislators on behalf of different pieces of consumer
legislation. She lobbied legislators - first having to develop what she
called "irresistible or irrefutable arguments" - to persuade them to
vote favorably on consumer issues. She worked closely with the press to
publicize consumer concerns.
While Governor Brown was "tremendously supportive," she found it was a
job that required stamina and integrity. It was a position that was often
at the center of controversy. Many industries, such as the packaging
industry and financial institutions, did not want to change their way of dealing
with the consuming public.
She was criticized by their Sacramento lobbyists and organizations sympathetic
to the business community. she had to learn to handle the "slings and
arrows" with composure and grace and respond with effective arguments (a
talent that she claims she learned in high school as a member of the debate
team!) on behalf of the California consumer. The stress of the job
was often intense. "In advocating work, you spend a lot of time with
your adversaries; it takes a lot not to be beguiled by them."
Her stress, however, was often alleviated by husband Nathan, who was always a
comfort to her. "He was magnificent about it, Helen states, and he
was proud of me." sometimes, when all else failed, Helen - who never
walked a golf course in her life - would go to a driving range and hit buckets
and buckets of golf balls until she could feel the tension ebb.
One piece of legislation she successfully steered through the state legislature
was the right of consumers to return merchandise (or have it re-possessed) if
they could not make the payments. Before this time, consumers would suffer
having the merchandise repossessed and would still have to pay for
it. She also managed to have ordinances passed regarding door-to-door
sales. She successfully drafted legislation that mandated registration of
electronic repair shops and auto repair shops in the state. For he work in
consumer legislation, Mrs. Nelson was recognized for "Distinguished
Service" by the organization, Women for Legislative Action. She
received a Resolution of commendation from the California State Assembly for her
leadership in consumer affairs. Her leadership in the area also gained
recognition at the national level. Mrs. Nelson outlined the "four
rights of consumers"' now known as the "Consumer's Bill of
Rights." This concept was used by President Kennedy in a speech to
Congress, the first president to actively support the consumer movement.
President Kennedy later appointed Mrs. Nelson to the President's consumer
Advisory Council, a position she continued to hold under President Lyndon
Johnson. But back in California, the political climate was changing.
In 1968, Governor Brown was faced with a strong challenge from well-financed
gubernatorial candidate Ronald Regan. Regan campaigned against many of the
reforms made during the "Brown years'" including the Consumer
Counsel's Office. In fact, Regan promised that, if elected, the first
thing he would do, once in office would be "to fire Helen
Nelson." "Let's face it'" claims Helen, "I was
disliked in many of the circles that he (Regan) ran in." Her consumer
success had made powerful enemies of the California Grocers' Association, the
California Manufacturers' Association as well as the credit, furniture and
cosmetic industries to name a few.
While she was flattered to have Reagan identify her by name, with Reagan's
election victory she knew that her time in Sacramento was coming to a quick
end. This political "setback" did not stop her consumer
work. within a short time, Helen was the President of the Consumer
Federation of California. She also continued to serve on the Board of
Directors of the Consumer Union.
In 1969, she moved to Wisconsin to become a Professor of Economics at the
University of Wisconsin, as well as leading the Center for Consumer
Affairs. She stayed in Milwaukee for almost ten years. During this
time she was appointed as a Public Governor of the American Stock
Exchange. As a Public Governor, she represented the interests of the individual
investor. She helped to establish guidelines that insured adequate
financial information and investment disclosure for the "small"
During this time she worked very hard on the "truth in lending"
guidelines to force financial institutions to deliver an annual statement
revealing the amount of interest paid on loans, etc. Despite strong
opposition from banks and other financial entities and delaying tactics, her
fifteen-year fight resulted in the law finally passing the Congress. She
was elected President of the
Consumer Federation of America during this same period. When she became a
Consumer Consultant for the Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress
- as well as Consumer Consultant to the National Academy of Science - she had an
opportunity to work with scientists to appraise the environmental impact of fluorocarbons
on the ozone layer. She was also involved in the establishment
of saccharin as a cancer-causing agent. In 1978 President Jimmy Carter
appoint4eed her to the President's Export Council (to represent the interests of
the buying public) - the same year she was made a Distinguished Fellow of the
American Council on Consumer Interests. Her only sadness during these
years of accomplishment was the death of Nathan in 1977.
In 1979, Helen Nelson returned to Mill Valley, where she founded the consumer
Research Foundation, an organization she continues to lead to the present.
The Foundati9on is dedicated to disseminating information of consumer
issues. She spends many of her days on the telephone, advising on consumer
issues to local groups, legislators in Sacramento, Washington, D.C. and foreign
governments. As a newly-appointed member of the Federal Reserve Board's
Governors, she advises on interest and credit issues, adequate financial
disclosure of mortgages, and the consumer impact of the new automated teller
She receives a flurry of news coverage in recent years when she went to
Sacramento with two pans of peas; her point was to show that the pea
packages were the same size, yet the quantity of peas was very different.
This comparative method was taken to Washington, where she testified before a
Senate Committee to push for truth in weights and measurements of
packages. The evidence she presented was a major embarrassment for the
food industry. Her advocacy was a success, as regulations were passed to
ensure "truth in packaging." Locally, Helen Nelson serves on the
Consumer Advisory Panel for Pacific Bell. She has served on the board of
T.U.R.N. She is currently on the Board of Directors of San Francisco
consumer Action, the Consumer Interest Research Institute, Americans for
Legislative Reform (H.A.L.T.), Artisans, Inc. and the California Federation of
consumers. The Ford Motor Co. appointed her to the Northern California
Appeals Board for Consumers who have complaints about factory of dealer
work. She recently authored The Consumer Agenda for the Financial
Services Industry, published in London and New York.
Her motivation to continue to serve the consuming public comes from the
satisfaction she feels when "things are a little better, a little fairer,
and a little more worthy of trust in the marketplace." When asked if
she had a 'magic genie," what consumer law she would pass, her response was
quick. "A national health care system. We are the only
industrialized country in the whole world, with the exception of South Africa,
which does not have it." And what can the American consumer do to
achieve fairness in the market place? "Have schools teach good use of
money such as how to use credit, how to buy a car, etc." Consumers spend
tow-thirds of all money spent in the United States. consumers deserve, and
should demand, fair treatment! She recommends working in conjunction with
a consumer's rights organization. What is her worst fear for consumers in
the next twenty years? "That consumers will become like the feudal
people of old times. That they will be so tied to a VISA card that they
are not whole people. That they will be easily manipulated by the
television and sellers, that they will do what is suggested to them instead of
what comes from their own spirit."
What advice does Helen Nelson, the "motion" behind the American
consumer movement - the "First Lady of Consumerism" - have for the
next generation of women? "Don't ever overlook the fact that some
seven, eight, nine or ten year old girl may be looking at her doll or at the
computer," she claims, "but you do have an influence on her. Be
a good influence. Help her to grow up to be a total person!"