She was America's most gutsy housewife, a woman who turned domestic concerns into national battles. Ruth Desmond, founder and president of the Arlington-based Federation of Homemakers since 1959, died Friday of cancer. She was 82.

Desmond was best known as the "peanut butter grandmother" for her fight, against the Food and Drug Administration in 1965, to increase the percentage of peanuts in peanut butter. A consumer activist with a unique style, she was perhaps the last of an extinct breed.

"She was really the first person to put down roots and go after these namby-pamby regulatory agencies," said Ralph Nader, in an interview three years ago. She was the only remaining "heiress" to a tradition, a tradition of home economics activism that started at the turn of the century with women such as Carrie Nation, Nader believed.

Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen Health Research Group, said at the time that Desmond showed the "extraordinary ability to make a difference as one person."

Desmond sat through 10 years of FDA appropriations hearings and knew the names and spellings of all the subcommittee chairmen. Some said she was the only housewife to read through FDA hearing room records. Her interests were primarily food safety and she tackled such issues as nitrates in baby food, additives in jelly beans and caffeine in soft drinks.

In a makeshift office in Arlington, Desmond published a newsletter ("Fighting for Wholesome Foods Since 1959" said the letterhead) that was sent quarterly to the federation's approximately 5,000 members.

She admittedly lacked scientific know-how and her grandmotherly image often subjected her to ridicule and sexism. While she didn't have the resources or power of today's sophisticated consumer groups, she did function as an "alerter" for them -- highlighting issues that were later pursued by people such as Nader.

Nevertheless, many believed she had a rare ability to get right to the point, an unusual talent in Washington that often left the powerful speechless: At an international food law conference, Desmond, seated next to the senior vice president of General Foods, said, "I know this is terrible, but you know it amazes me, how you gentlemen in this food industry are always so concerned about having quality food yourself. But you want the rest of us to eat sawdust."

At the peanut butter hearings, Desmond told company attorneys that peanut butter with less than 95 percent peanuts should be called "peanut spread," or better yet "cold cream."

After she successfully sued the Department of Agriculture for permitting "all beef" and "all meat" to appear on hot dog labels -- even though they contained other ingredients -- she called the Department of Justice to say it would be an injustice if the agency took the case to the Supreme Court. "This is ridiculous," she said. "Our own government is against us, the people, the taxpayers, the consumers. This is terrible. I'll just tell the world how outrageous this is if you go on."

Ruth Desmond set an example for housewives, concerned citizens, stiff and serious government officials. She will be missed for her sincerity, chatty demeanor, senses of irony and humor -- and most importantly, her voice.

As she said three years ago, "I've always been amazed. I suppose because I have a pleasant manner, they {the food industry} will tell me the most outrageous, confidential things. I just wonder why, I would say to myself inwardly, are you telling me this?" Because, she continued with a infectious laugh, "I will mostly certainly blab it."