FOR many Americans, ``housewife'' has come to be a belittling word, as if women without a resume lack credentials of any value.
But for a courageous group of Argentine mothers, that humble domestic identity has achieved impressive political strength. Every Thursday afternoon for the past 17 years, women calling themselves the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have marched in front of the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, protesting the disappearance of some of their own children and as many as 30,000 other innocent Argentines during a brutal dictatorship that lasted from 1976 to 1983. Wearing white kerchiefs made from baby shawls and embroidered with the slogan ``Bring Them Back Alive,'' they have circled the plaza for nearly 900 consecutive Thursdays.
It is a record of which the Mothers are justifiably proud. With more than a hint of triumph in her voice, Juana de Pargament, a founding member, says that few political movements in Argentina have managed to survive for 17 years.
During an interview at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., Mrs. de Pargament, a small, tireless woman, explains that her life changed forever in 1977 when her 31-year-old son, a doctor, was captured and presumably tortured and killed by the military regime. Accompanying her is another founding member, Mercedes Colas de Merono, who lost a daughter during the disappearances. For them, as for other Mothers, once-predictable maternal roles have been transformed into an untraditional ``political motherhood'' in their unrelenting quest for social justice.
Over the years, some Mothers have endured threats against their lives. A few have been killed. Yet they carry on, refusing to be placated by a government that still offers no information about the fate of the tens of thousands who disappeared. Out of their desperation has come determination. Out of their sorrow, strength.
Although often unschooled and politically unskilled, the women demonstrated such impressive courage in working for human rights that the Mothers were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980.
Marguerite Bouvard, author of ``Revolutionizing Motherhood: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo,'' to be published next month by SR Books, first met the Mothers in Argentina in 1989. ``At first I thought, `What can a group of middle-aged women do against a repressive government?' '' Ms. Bouvard says in an interview. ``But I saw they could do a lot.''
She explains that although their children were social reformers of different kinds, the Mothers themselves had always stayed in the home. ``What they learned from their children was that you have to get out there and roll up your sleeves and get involved.''
In recent years, the Mothers' agenda has expanded to include issues of health, poverty, and hunger. Now their efforts are spreading beyond Argentina. Last week De Pargament and Mrs. Colas de Merono traveled to Paris to meet with mothers from 11 countries whose children have also been subjected to human rights abuses. From Israel, Palestine, Peru, the former Yugoslavia, Russia, Spain, Italy, and Morocco the mothers came, bound by a common, urgent mission - the safety and well-being of their children.
To protest war and encourage peace, the women meeting in Paris have also begun gathering signatures from mothers around the globe. These will be presented to world leaders on Oct. 6.
These ``ordinary housewives,'' as Bouvard affectionately calls the Mothers, have accomplished extraordinary things. They serve as a reminder that education, titles, rank, power - however worthy - are far from the only defining measures of individual worth. Inspired by individual tragedies in Argentina 17 years ago, they now demand accountability for a whole spectrum of injustices across the world, while never forgetting the original, still-unresolved issue that made them activists in the first place.
``Theirs is a new way for politics - the politics of decency and caring,'' Bouvard says. ``The average person has a role to play,'' she adds, offering an element of challenge to anyone who has ever assumed that one individual can't make a difference.