When the First Lady of Greece arrives in San Francisco this week for a visit to the United States, she won’t need an interpreter. In Greece, Margaret Papandreou—whose husband, Andreas, became Prime Minister last October—is known for her forceful advocacy of women’s rights as co-founder of one of the largest feminist organizations in the country. But in the town of Elmhurst, Ill. she is remembered as Maggie Chant, daughter of a mechanic, who went away to the University of Minnesota in 1941. After graduation she married an expatriate Greek economist who transformed her life. “I had no connection with Greece at the time,” Margaret, 58, recalls. “If someone had told me when I was waiting on tables to pay my tuition that I would someday be the wife of the Greek Premier, I would have laughed.”
In fact, the Papandreous lived in the United States for eight years after their 1951 wedding. “I wouldn’t say he had a burning desire to return to Greece,” she remembers. “But there was a nostalgia.” They and their four children spent a year in Athens in 1959, when Andreas, who was teaching at Berkeley, won a Fulbright fellowship. His enthusiasm was rekindled and the family returned for good in 1963.
Almost immediately Andreas became active in Greek politics, particularly after his father, George, was elected Prime Minister. The elder Papandreou was put under house arrest in the 1967 military coup that shattered democracy in Greece (he died of a heart attack the next year). Andreas, a leftist member of Parliament in his father’s Center Union Party, was imprisoned and held in solitary confinement. Suddenly the Illinois girl turned into a political activist. Risking her own safety, Margaret hectored the military authorities and lobbied with foreign governments to intervene. Every night she sat in her car across the street from her husband’s prison cell, a lighted cigarette in her hand. It was her way, she explains, of saying “Goodnight. I love you.” International pressure mounted—Lyndon Johnson ordered an aide to “tell those Greek bastards to lay off that son of a bitch, whoever he is.” In December 1967 the junta exiled Andreas Papandreou. He went to Sweden and later to Canada, but returned to Greece when democracy was restored in 1974.
Since then Margaret Papandreou has been as determined about her causes as her husband is about his. From an office in her home, she coordinates a campaign to involve Greek women in the battle for their rights. “Rural women especially are still suffering from the very strong male mentality,” she says. Andreas, who now leads Greece’s Socialist Party, has taken a step toward changing that by appointing three women to his Cabinet, including actress Melina (Never on Sunday) Mercouri as Minister of Culture and Sciences. “I have great faith in Greek women,” Margaret says. “When they are strong, they are really strong.”
She is acutely aware of her husband’s controversial reputation in the U.S. In 1963 Andreas surrendered the American citizenship he had acquired 19 years earlier by joining the U.S. Navy. Before his recent election, he was widely depicted as anti-American because of his opposition to NATO and American military installations on Greek soil. He now appears more moderate, though he still intends to negotiate the matter of American bases later this year. Margaret insists that her husband’s anti-American reputation is unjustified, but she herself does object to U.S. foreign policy when it is carried out at the expense of small countries. “What you might call the arrogance of power exists in the decisions that are made in Washington,” she says. “Big powers must have a broader view and a greater generosity.”
The Papandreous’ ties to the U.S. remain strong. Son Nick, 25, is a Yale graduate now pursuing his Ph.D. in economics at Princeton. George, 29, who also was educated at Yale, has just taken the seat in the Greek Parliament once occupied by his father and grandfather. Daughter Sofia, 27, an economics graduate, lives in Greece and is expecting her first child next month. The youngest son, Andriko, 23, is studying economics in England.
During her U.S. visit Margaret Papandreou hopes to convince Greek-Americans that their adopted country still has an ally in Athens—and in her husband. “He may disagree with the American Administration,” she admits, “but Andreas is simply a Greek who is eager to do the best for his country.”