She was 12 when she fell fiercely in love with politics, helping her grandfather campaign for the state senate on the American Socialist ticket, back in the Depression, when political conformity to the established parties was a luxury desperate men could not afford. He lost his race, but she found her cause and the beginning of her own oddly American odyssey. She was Maggie Chant then, a small-town kid from Elmhurst, Ill., a would-be basketball star who couldn't understand why the coach wouldn't even let her try out for the boys' team.

Now she is Margaret Papandreou, wife of the first Socialist prime minister of Greece, veteran of some of history's more volcanic wrenches, player in a world of coups d'e'tat, exile, international intrigue and imprisonment, participant in the intricate, passionate maze of politics in a country whose destiny has looked like a slalom course at times, careening sharply between dictatorship and democracy.

"I like people who take dares," she says. She is tall and blond with a wide-mouthed smile that even now, at 58, lends her face an all-American aura, Doris Day good looks, frank and determined. Certainly she has taken her own share of dares, as an American-born wife of a charismatic politician in a country where antiAmerican sentiment is an emotion easily provoked; an outspoken feminist in a patriarchal society where her actions have frequently been a cause for controversy.

In Greece, she walks a delicate course; she has been criticized severely at various times for her political involvement. Here, talking at the Greek Embassy, in a room filled with the scent of hyacinths, she plays her cards discreetly, careful of her words.

She is here now, traveling through a half-dozen American cities, to talk to Greek-Americans about the changes taking place in Greece and to ask their help in bringing the country into the modern world. "There has been a big brain drain," she says. "Some of those who left might come back permanently, others temporarily, to teach and train and exploit the talent that is still there."

Maggie Chant met Andreas Papandreou in Minneapolis in 1948. A graduate of the University of Minnesota, she had opened her own public relations office. "I was not making a hell of a lot of money," she remembers, and so when a Cypriot dentist asked her to ghostwrite his autobiography, "Thrice a Stranger," she accepted. He offered her dental work in exchange for her writing, a tooth for a chapter. She was in his office when Papandreou, a friend of the dentist and an associate professor of economics at the University of Minnesota, walked in.

"I wasn't terribly attracted to him at first," she remembers. "But as soon as he started to talk, he had a lot of charm, and a wonderful capacity for analysis. We shared the same political philosophy. Talking to him was like a feast." After a complex, three-year courtship, during which he divorced his wife and she married and divorced another man, they were married in 1951.

Her own political philosophy was shaped in large part by the Depression. She was one of five daughters of an automobile dealer and mechanic, and her family was "among the better-off" in Elmhurst until the Crash. Her father was unable to find another job, and at the age of 11 she found herself growing up "in a very poor family. It seemed to me that there was something very unjust about people having a lot of money while others had none." It was not only the economic but the psychological poverty that distressed her. "It was a question of pride, a question of dignity, not to want your girlfriends to know that your clothes were a cousin's castoffs, for example. The principles of socialism appealed to me. They were human goals, health, education, a right to work."

When she met Andreas Papandreou, he was an American citizen, an expatriate who had left Greece in 1939 when it was in the hands of a dictatorship. After their marriage, Papandreou continued to teach, first at the University of Minnesota, and later at the University of California at Berkeley where he was chairman of the economics department. A trip to Greece on a Fulbright scholarship eventually resulted in their decision to return to Greece with their four children.

"It wasn't easy for me," she says of the adjustment to Greek society. It took a while to understand the rules of the game, longer still to keep her temper when a man on the street, angry at the sight of her behind the wheel of a car, would shout, "Get back to the kitchen!"

In 1964, her husband's father became prime minister, and Andreas was named to the cabinet. "I hadn't found my own political struggle yet," she says. "We talked a lot together. What kept me somewhat sane was having the discussions and debates" about the future of Greece with her husband and father-in-law.

In 1967, a military junta seized control of the country. Andreas Papandreou was arrested and imprisoned and finally exiled, settling in Canada and working against the dictatorship. When the junta collapsed in 1974, they returned to Greece.

Last October the voters swept into office the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, the party that Andreas Papandreou had founded after his return from exile. Margaret Papandreou began to concentrate on women's issues. "We connect socialism and feminism," she says in her role as vice president of the Women's Union of Greece, one of the three major feminist organizations in the country. "If we cannot make headway in a socialist regime, we never will." Most of her attention is directed to the revision of the family law section of the civil code, including the government's current drive to legalize civil marriages, revise the law to get rid of such institutions as the dowry and to change the law that makes the husband the only legal head of the family. She spends time, as well, in the countryside, talking to the women there. "We're more successful in organizing rural women than urban women," she says. "When we go into the urban neighborhoods where the housewives are, we can't get anywhere. They stay in their houses all day, watching TV. But now that TV is in the hands of the new government . . ." Margaret Papandreou smiles.

The prime minister's wife is also a member of the international relations committee of PASOK, her husband's party, but she is somewhat circumspect about her political role. "We discuss things," she says. "He respects my political judgment. I am an influence on him, though we sometimes disagree on tactics and strategies." And what of the reports that have appeared in the press from time to time that it is Margaret, not Andreas Papandreou, who is the more radical of the two? "I think that I am perhaps more radical on some issues than Andreas," she says. "I suppose on women's issues I would be the more radical. Look, it's easy to be more radical when you're not the person responsible, not the one in power."

It seems a strange position to be in, so thoroughly American in her way, so passionately committed to the future of her adopted country at a time when the concerns of the two nations lie in uneasy juxtaposition. It is not a subject she discusses easily. Her first few years in Greece were not only a matter of learning about the needs and priorities of one country, but of readjusting her attitude toward her homeland. "Living in a small country and observing the role of the United States discouraged and depressed me," she says. She saw that role as one, at times, of "direct involvement and pressure" in the Greeks' own decision-making process. "It hurt me very much, I didn't want my country doing that." Although, she says, "it's one thing to have your illusions drop. Then you have to confront the reality. It's healthier to have a clear vision, to know what you're up against."

Still, while coming back to the United States is something of a shock at times, shock at "a highly materialistic culture," and at the "lack of interest in international concerns," her affection for her homeland "never wanes. You can't go to school in a country, have friends there and have believed in it and not feel at home," says Margaret Papandreou. "It's my people."