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Greek women find a champion in Mrs. Papandreou

The village women of Petra, a tiny seaside village on the Greek island of Lesbos, had been up since dawn, preparing food for a unique celebration. They were still adding last-minute garnishes to the platters and jamming roses into water jugs when a car bearing the blue and white flag of Greece arrived.

Margaret Papandreou, wife of Andreas Papandreou, Greece's socialist prime minister, stepped from the car to receive a bouquet of flowers. A tall, strikingly handsome woman, she was helped through the crowd to a place of honor at an outside banquet table set up under a grape arbor. Sea winds tugged at the tablecloths as various toasts were made.

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Mrs. Papandreou made her late October visit to Petra to celebrate the formation of Greece's first agro-tourist cooperative. The cooperative, which will offer low-cost ''farm holidays'' in local Greek homes, is to be owned, operated, and controlled by the women of Petra themselves.

Before Andreas Papandreou's Panhellenic Socialist Movement swept into power in 1981, such a project would likely not have been undertaken. Greek women have long lived under an archaic system of laws (one of which was that they could not own a business without their husband's permission) that effectively kept them second-class citizens. The new government is attempting to change all that.

The women hovering behind the banquet table were asked what they would do with the money they earned from the cooperative.

An elderly woman dressed in the traditional peasant garb of black on black stepped forward to answer. ''We will fix our houses, buy some dresses, and travel.''

''And do your husbands approve?''

A long, complicated answer from the woman followed. The gist was that in Petra - a depressed village, where many residents are forced to emigrate in order to make a living - many of the men have in effect transcended that issue.

The celebration over, Mrs. Papandreou got back into her car and was driven toward the mountain town of Aghaisso - a two-hour trek on serpentine roads leading to the middle of the island. That evening, the people of Aghaisso would hear the first lecture on birth control ever given there. The town women would also attend their first meeting of the Women's Union of Greece, Mrs. Papandreou's brainchild.

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For the prime minister's wife, it was a fairly typical day.

Margaret Papandreou's face is easy to remember - high cheekbones, direct blue eyes, and generous smile. She could pass - out of context - for the president of a private school mothers' club or a dressed-for-success corporate executive. But neither her background nor her philosophical convictions would fit those roles.

She is the eldest daughter of an Elmhurst, Ill., family. Her father was a mechanic; her mother a housewife. One of her four sisters sells Mary Kay cosmetics in California. She got her political feet wet for the first time when she was 12, helping her grandfather, a semiliterate plumber (''I used to help him with his press statements'') run for the Illinois state Senate on a socialist platform. He lost.

She met her future husband at the University of Minnesota, where she was a student and he was an economics professor. The mother of four children, author of three books, and holder of degrees in journalism and public health, Mrs. Papandreou is now a full-time worker in the Greek feminist movement.

Both she and her husband work at home, she says. ''It's a terribly active house, people coming and going. But we're both very much committed to what we're doing. That gives you stamina. If anybody were to ask what has kept our marriage together, I would say that it's our common ideals and ideas. It's a common fight , larger than ourselves.''

The fight to ''liberate'' Greek women has only begun in Greece, on a governmental level. In a sweeping series of new family laws, Parliament has eliminated the dowry requirement and made it legal for a Greek woman to keep her own name after marriage, to have custody of small children, to choose which schools they attend, to travel with them outside the country without her husband's permission, and to obtain a divorce on mutually declared grounds of incompatibility.

The ultra-right wing of the Greek Orthodox Church has called these laws ''a disaster for the Greek family.'' The primate of Greece, however, has called them ''honest.''

Women make up 80 percent of illiterate Greeks. It is still widely expected that women will stay home and care for the children and elderly, to the exclusion of other pursuits.

''The Greek woman has many problems, but the major problem is to change the mentality of Greek women,'' says Maria Kypriotaki-Perraki, the deputy minister of health.

Mrs. Papandreou's Women's Union of Greece, which now has over 10,000 members and 85 chapters, is perhaps the chief nongovernmental tool in effecting this change of attitude. It spreads from Athens, which has nine groups, to the outermost regions of the country, where there are still very few. Mrs. Papandreou spends most of her time seeking to expand the organization's base, but not necessarily her own influence. Twice she has been elected president. Twice she has declined, taking the vice-president's post instead.

''It's a little counter to socialism to have a personality cult, but one thing that is true is that Greek women didn't have a public podium before, so they had no one to identify with. Five years from now, other women will be recognized as strong feminist leaders. More figures are cropping up,'' she says.

Mrs. Papandreou ''crops up'' regularly, however, at new chapter meetings around the country to give them some added impetus. Women meeting to discuss their lives is a brand-new phenomenon in Greece, and the prime minister's wife is aware of that.

''One of the first questions I ask at a new chapter meeting is whether there is anyone who had difficulty in coming here. Usually, nobody raises her hand. Then I ask if they know of anybody else who had trouble getting here. 'Yes,' they say. That is what breaks the ice. We discuss why.''

The reasons rarely vary. ''We find out,'' Mrs. Papandreou says, ''that in some cases the women are afraid of displeasing their husbands. 'What is his power?' I ask. 'Will he leave you?' They kind of giggle. Then we get to the fact that they don't have any money, are afraid of physical violence - and of gossip.''

The role of gossip in a small Greek village is powerful. ''We discuss why women are so sensitive to it,'' says Mrs. Papandreou, who already knows. ''Criticism is a political tool, especially for women, because they haven't developed an identity and therefore are extremely sensitive to it. Criticism has been a weapon that men have used over women for a long time.''

Does Mrs. Papandreou, as an American woman, encounter any criticism from elements in Greece who resent her participation in the women's movement?

''Of course, it's true that I am attacked by the opposition press,'' she replies, ''and this makes good sense. I am a political target. Those who would like to damage Andreas attack me or my family. It's part of the political game, but usually the best method is to ignore it.'' Then, too, Mrs. Papandreou is usually moving too fast to give criticism undue attention.

When Mrs. Papandreou's car approached the hilly, cobblestoned mountain village of Aghaisso, darkness had fallen. But the townspeople, who had been waiting for her arrival, immediately surrounded her car.

The villagers followed Mrs. Papandreou into the packed Opera House, lining the aisles where no seats were available. The program was a lecture and slides by a woman gynecologist from Athens.

After the lecture, Mrs. Papandreou went immediately to a small library for the first meeting of the Women's Union in Aghaisso. It was standing room only.

She asked the first question: ''What is your main problem in Aghaisso?'' The answer was unanimous: isolation. Most of the women work in the olive orchards until sundown, after which they go home and prepare supper.

Later that evening, Mrs. Papandreou relaxed with her staff and a number of American journalists in a taverna in Molybus. The local men danced as the inspiration hit them. Several younger women got up on tables and did their own dances. Then the musicians played a traditional dance. Rising from her seat, Mrs. Papandreou proceeded to join the village men in their dancing. The men, who clapped vigorously, were enchanted. She knew all the steps.

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