While raising her children in Weston, Peggy McCarter was soft-spoken, running her household with impeccable manners and calling everyone “dear.”
She was much more than she seemed, however. Having grown up in Mexico, she spoke fluent Spanish. An activist locally and with national groups, she participated in civil rights organizations and protested the arms race in the 1960s.
“If you ever complained about anything to her, she would always say, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ She was just an ordinary housewife who never hesitated to pick up the phone,” said her son Harris of Cambridge. “She stopped waiting for someone else to do something about it and did it herself.”
Mrs. McCarter, an activist for about 50 years, died Sept. 12 in Long Hill Assisted Living Facility on Martha’s Vineyard. She was 86 and had lived in Westport.
She had been president of the Massachusetts chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and served as part of the group’s national leadership. Her sons said she was a founding member of advocacy organizations and was a member of Amnesty International, the NAACP, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Mrs. McCarter also took part in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington in 1963, and campaigned on behalf of political candidates from the 1960s through about 2007.
Her sons said that when they were growing up, she took them to numerous rallies, including protests after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Harris said that as a boy, after attending one rally with his mother, he appeared on the local evening TV news holding a sign that said: “I want to grow up, not blow up.”
In a letter to the Globe editor in 1972, Mrs. McCarter advocated on behalf of busing as a way to integrate public schools.
“We believe that the mingling of children of different races in the schools will do much to eradicate racial prejudice,” she wrote.
Her sons said that during the 1970s, Mrs. McCarter took part in human rights fact-finding trips to places such as Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Northern Ireland, and then testified before government panels in the United States and England. She also was a delegate to international conferences on human rights, women’s rights, and disarmament, her family said.
“She never raised her voice,” said her son Brian of Newton. “She was always very soft-spoken, and I think people made an extra effort to listen.”
Mrs. McCarter could be just as focused on local matters. David Dionne, a painting contractor, first met Mrs. McCarter in her Westport living room when she hosted a group that supported a candidate for the local Board of Health.
“She was a force of nature,” he said. “She was someone who could give you hope when it looked really, really dark.”
In the 1990s, Dionne said, there was tension between residents “who had been running the town forever and those who had moved there in the last 20 years.”
Dionne, who served on the Board of Selectman, said that with all the conflict, “you would get beat up a lot” standing up for certain issues.
“Peg would go to your public speaking events and sit at the front row and beam at you while you spoke,” he said. She also approached Dionne after meetings and presentations to offer compliments, which “gave me the strength to go back in for another round, so to speak.”
Margaret Douglas McCarter was born in El Paso. At the time, her parents were living in Pachuca, Mexico, where her father worked as an engineer for a mining company, but they went to El Paso for her birth.
The oldest of three children, Mrs. McCarter grew up in a small community of Britons and Americans living in Mexico, said her brother, Brian Douglas of Cohasset.
She spent a few years in school in the United States and graduated from The American School Foundation in Mexico City. She then enrolled at a college in Missouri until her father was transferred to New England. Her family moved to Wellesley and she took classes at Emerson College.
In 1947, while volunteering at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, she met Dr. Robert H. McCarter, a psychiatrist who co-directed a clinic, and they wed in 1949. He spent decades teaching at Harvard Medical School. He died in 1997.
While her sons were in school in Weston, Mrs. McCarter became involved in politics. In the late 1970s, she worked for the state’s Department of Public Welfare and Department of Social Services. The work often entailed going at night into neighborhoods that weren’t safe, her son Brian said.
“The reason she didn’t continue doing that was kind of the reason she stopped going on these fact-finding missions,” he said. “My dad was really concerned for her safety. We were all sort of concerned for her safety … she was very reckless, in a sense, about getting involved with very dangerous people and being totally fearless about it.”
For decades, Mrs. McCarter wrote dozens of letters to editors to newspapers, among them Westport Shorelines, the Standard-Times of New Bedford, and the Globe, said her son John of Chilmark. And she never hesitated to call a local official or anyone who might be able to make a difference.
A service was held this month for Mrs. McCarter, who in addition to her brother, Brian, and her sons, Harris, John, and Brian, leaves another son, Bruce of South Egremont; a step-daughter, Madeline Mullane of Sonoma, Calif.; and seven grandchildren. A son, Frank, died in August.
Along with her many other activities, Mrs. McCarter volunteered for the Westport River Watershed Alliance’s testing team, taking water samples for a few years and helping the organization show that a farm was contributing to increased nitrogen levels in the river.
“The diversity of the campaigns is just amazing,” her son Brian said. Mrs. McCarter, he added, “would step up and do anything she could.”