WESTPORT - With her small frame and quiet voice, Peg McCarter doesn't look like a powerhouse, but she is never shy about speaking out on issues she feels strongly about. Unafraid of sometimes fierce political opposition, she has an internal moral compass that firmly guides her.
Her activism has led this mother of five sons to participate in several international peace conferences. She has hosted the wife of Salvador Allende, the assassinated president of Chile, at her house. And she was asked to go to Spain to testify against Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the brutal dictator of Chile.
Mrs. McCarter's interest in Latin America and South America may stem from the fact that she grew up in Mexico. Her father was a mining engineer and the family lived in Pachuca, Hidalgo.
"I learned Spanish before I learned English," Mrs. McCarter said.
The route to Mexico and back to the U.S. was circuitous and helps explain why Mrs. McCarter has the perspective of an internationalist. Her father was born in New Zealand. His English mother was born in India. The family's roots even extend back to Russia.
Peg McCarter sits in her Westport home with a painting her father bought in Tasco, Mexico.
Her father attended the University of California. "That was the time of the Gold Rush," Mrs. McCarter said.
After graduating, he was told that Mexico was looking for experts to build roads. So, traveling with a friend in an open-backed roadster, he took off for Mexico. When the roadster broke down, some Indians used a long stick as an axle and pulled them to their destination.
When it was time for Peg to be born, her parents went across the border to El Paso, Texas, so her mother could give birth in a hospital there.
Her fearlessness and independence were apparent from the beginning. From 1939 to 1940, Peg attended Miss Scott's School for Girls in Azusa near Pasadena. "After the first year, the war had heated up and the U.S. was involved," she said. "After Pearl Harbor, they took us by plane and bus to San Francisco. Everyone was told not to smoke because they were afraid it would be seen by the Japanese."
Those were the days of lights out in coastal California because Americans were at war with Japan. Peg was sent home, alone, to Mexico, making her way at a young age by airplane. She was bumped off a plane in Southern California to make way for military personnel and spent the night alone at the airport. She made it to El Paso, Texas, but was stymied once again. Both times, she sent telegrams to her parents so they wouldn't be worried.
Finally, an employee at the Texas airport, who was worried about her, arranged a ride with a man who was flying a load of chickens to Mexico in a private plane. And that's how she made her way home. Her parents were upset because they had never received the telegrams, which were delayed for security reasons. When the telegrams finally arrived the next day, they apologized.
Peg went to a girls school in Dallas and graduated from the American School in Mexico City. She attended Stephens College in Missouri, which was considered a safe place in wartime because it was in the middle of the country. Soon after, Peg's father was transferred to Boston as an international consulting engineer for U.S. Melting, Refining and Mining.
World War II was still going on while Mrs. McCarter took courses at Emerson College. She later took more courses at Brandeis and Boston University on the route to becoming a licensed social worker.
She met her husband, Robert, while she was volunteering at Mass Mental Health. Mr. McCarter was director of the outpatient clinic at the hospital, which was known then as Boston Psychopathic Hospital. Mr. McCarter ended his career as a professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, with which the hospital is affiliated.
It wasn't until her boys were in school that Mrs. McCarter became active in politics. "When the children were in school, just before the Eisenhower Administration, I decided that if I was going to raise American citizens, I had better be an American," she said. At the time, she had dual English and Mexican citizenship.
"It was really my responsibility to learn about the politics and to vote to try to make this country a better place for my sons," she said.
Two doctor friends had studied the aftermath of the dropping of the atom bomb in Japan. After hearing them give a report on their findings, Peg and her husband decided they had to do something. Mr. McCarter founded Physicians for Social Responsibility and Mrs. McCarter helped found the Voice of Women in New England. Through that group, she later became involved in the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.
The WILPF was founded by Jane Addams of Hull House in Chicago in 1915 to protest World War I and is still going strong. Its mission is to bring together women of diverse backgrounds with a common goal of helping to abolish the political, social, economic and psychological causes of war. Recently, a delegation went to Afghanistan to learn more about the struggles of women there.
When she began her involvement in politics, Mrs. McCarter said, "I was shy and I thought someone else would say what I was thinking, but no one did. So I reached the point where I spoke out."
At a time when Boston Mayor James Michael Curley was "running the city from jail," Mrs. McCarter decided to campaign for opposition candidates. She became part of a group called Political Action for Peace. In 1970, this group helped get Father Robert Drinan, a Jesuit priest and anti-war candidate, elected to the U.S. Congress. Mrs. McCarter said they chose Drinan over the youthful John Kerry, whom they also liked.
Eventually, the group branched out to encompass international crusades. Focusing on women's rights issues, Mrs. McCarter attended several conferences in Latin America through the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.
While she was at the Latin American conference, Mrs. McCarter became aware of the situation in Chile. "One of our members was from Chile," she said. "Her husband was a minister. She spoke to us at conferences, not as a speaker, but about the terrible things that were happening."
The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom now had consultative status at the United Nations. Mrs. McCarter recalled that when the ambassador to Chile denied the reports of torture, he told the UN secretary that it could send a group down "to look for ourselves."
The UN asked the Women's International League if it wanted to go and it accepted. Mrs. McCarter said they avoided being trapped in formal situations where they would be under the regime's thumb. She said they did not stay at the assigned hotel and were in Chile for several days before the government realized where they were.
Mrs. McCarter said she had forged acquaintances with "Time Life" photographers who lived near her family in Weston, Mass. They told her how to find the shanty towns, colleges and hospitals.
"We were invited to teas by the women of the junta," Mrs. McCarter said. But she added that, before they went to the teas, they made their way to these other places.
The coup and assassination of the elected socialist leader Salvador Allende occurred on Sept. 11, 1973. Many historians now believe the coup was supported by the CIA and the Nixon Administration. Mrs. McCarter said it was "because he had promised to nationalize the copper mines."
Among the other reasons were that the U.S., which was still enmeshed in the war in Vietnam, did not want to allow a socialist leader to gain power in Latin or South America. The American policy at the time was to support dictators, even brutal ones, to stop the spread of Communism.
Thousands of people were rounded up in the National Stadium where they faced firing squads. Mrs. McCarter said that a famous national musician, who sang to help calm the crowds, had his hands cut off.
Mrs. Allende escaped. Her daughter, Isabel, a well known novelist, moved to California. As word spread of the torture under Pinochet's military dictatorship, Mrs. Allende was invited to speak before the United Nations and Congress. She was also invited to appear on television and at colleges and churches.
"One time they called me and said Mrs. Allende had been invited to speak at Yale Law School," Mrs. McCarter said. "They asked if I would come down and chair the meeting and I did. Later, Harvard Law School invited her and they asked me if she could stay at my house in Weston." Mrs. Allende did stay with the McCarters along with her retinue of traveling associates.
The path to Westport came along later. Mrs. McCarter's husband had bought some land on the Westport River as a gift for his wife.
"I love the ocean," she said. "I used to go to Acapulco as a child. So my husband bought this land and gave it to me as a present."
They didn't build on it, however, until 30 years later when two of their sons offered to build a house for them.
Now Mrs. McCarter lives in Westport full time. "When the boys got married we had three weddings here," she said.
Since her husband's death and despite a few injuries that have slowed her pace, Mrs. McCarter has not slowed down all that much. She campaigned for members of the progressive party in the last town election and often shows up at selectmen's meetings. She has also been spotted with a "Drop Bush, Not Bombs," sign in protest of the war in Iraq.
Mrs. McCarter also gave a report on Pinochet's abuses in England and led a delegation to Northern Ireland.
What cause will she champion next? It is difficult to imagine that Peg McCarter will ever stop trying to make the world a better place, not just for her children now but also for her grandchildren.
Copyright © 2005 East Bay Newspapers