Helen Nelson (1913-2005) will be greatly missed by the consumer movement

Many of the rights we take for granted exist because of Nelson's hard work

It was with great sadness that we learned of the March 22 death of Helen Ewing Nelson, a long-time Consumer Action board member and director of the Consumer Research Foundation, a Marin, California based advocacy organization. Nelson, a ground-breaking consumer advocate and writer who for over 40 years was a major force behind important developments in consumer consciousness and behavior, will be sorely missed by her colleagues in the consumer rights community. "Helen Nelson devoted most of her adult life to consumer advocacy and education," said Consumer Action Executive Director Ken McEldowney, who knew her for more than two decades. "Today we take so many consumer rights for granted, but it was Helen Nelson and a handful of other dedicated activists who ensured that consumers are treated fairly in the marketplace. From fair weights and measures and labeling of food and cosmetic products, to truth in lending, minimum wage laws and model employee benefits programs, Helen Nelson leaves behind a legacy of consumer protection for all of us." Nelson was born in Colorado, the fourth of five children. She graduated from the University of Colorado with Phi Beta Kappa honors in economics and received a scholarship to Mills College, where she earned a master's degree. Her advanced graduate work took her to the University of California where she worked as research assistant to economy professor Dr. Emily Huntington, a well-known consumer specialist. In the late 1930s, Nelson worked at the California Department of Employment as manager of unemployment claims. There she met Nathan Nelson, whom she married in 1942. In order to be with her husband during his service in World War II, she took a job at the War Production Board in Washington, D.C. After the war, working at the California Labor Statistics Division in the Department of Industrial Relations, Nelson studied the cost of living for single working women and her research was used by the Industrial Welfare Commission to set a fair standard for the minimum wage. In 1959 California Governor Edmund "Pat" Brown appointed Nelson as the state's first Consumer Counsel. The Consumer Counsel's position was the first of its kind in the country - responsibilities included working with stakeholder groups, including labor unions, the NAACP and women's organizations, on pro-consumer legislation. Nelson faced controversy in the position, as many industries proved resistant to the fledgling consumer rights movement. "In advocacy, you spend a lot of time with your adversaries; it takes a lot not to be beguiled by them," she once noted. Nelson successfully lobbied to pass pro-consumer laws on merchandise returns and repossessions, door-to-door sales and laws to register electronics repair and auto repair shops. Her leadership gained recognition at the national level. Her concept for a Consumers Bill of Rights was used by President John F. Kennedy, the first president to actively support the consumer movement, in a speech to Congress. It was Kennedy who appointed Nelson to the President's Consumer Advisory Council, a position she continued to hold under President Lyndon B. Johnson. In California, she aroused the ire of gubernatorial candidate Ronald Reagan, who promised that, if elected, the first thing he would do in office would be "to fire Helen Nelson" - probably at the behest of Nelson's powerful enemies in the California Grocers Association, the California Manufacturers Association and the credit, furniture and cosmetic industries. In 1969 Nelson became a professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin, where she led the Center for Consumer Affairs. She was appointed a public governor of the American Stock Exchange, where she was charged with representing the interests of the individual investor and helped to establish guidelines for investment disclosure for small investors. Among her many writings was the 1960s report to the California State Senate that resulted in the creation of the California employees health insurance system known as CalPERS, widely cited as a model for the nation. Nelson served as executive producer and co-writer for the 1995 documentary "Change Makers: The Struggle for Consumer Rights," a comprehensive view of the consumer movement since World War II. Nelson's awards were numerous. Among them were distinguished service by Women for Legislative Action; a resolution of commendation from the California State Assembly for her leadership in consumer affairs, and a distinguished fellow award from the American Council on Consumer Interests.
 
 

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