SOMEWHERE BENEATH THE SURFACE of even the most emancipated of women, Colete Dowling tells us, lives an indomitable Cinderella: passionate for protection, fiercely clinging to the old dependence, wedded to the belief that someday her Prince will come. The Unspeakable Confession: "I'd like to live, marsupialized, within the skin of another. More than air and energy and life itself, what I want is to be safe, warm, taken care of."

The existence of this reactionary self within the liberated ideal was revealed to Dowling through a well-traveled channel -- her own "personal experience." Here is the story from which the generalization was culled: After a promising debut as a magazine editor, Colette Dowling married at 24 and tok up the housewife profession. Rescued from the necessity of having to face the world herself, she sank with relief into an almost somnambulant dependence on her husband.

Several years and three children later, Dowling disentangled herself from the now stultifying marriage and claimed a room of her own. It was 1971, and nearly every close woman friend of hers, "buoyed by the militancy of the times," had taken the same course of action. For the next four years, Dowling supported herself and her three children quite successfully as a free-lance writer. Ambition soared; competence held fast; effort came to fruition. Freedom, at last, was at hand.

So was reversal. In the full flower of her independence, Colette Dowling met a man who was capable of appreciating that quality in her. They took up residence together in an idyllic country house where, by her own account, she once again promptly settled into the "wifely flight from self" she had once felt so stifled by. The writing ceased, self-respect soured, and she eased into a long daydream of apple pies and scrubbing.

Dowling's new man regarded independence of mind and purse as a sine qua non, however, for any woman he was to share his life with, and jolted her to recognition of her own passivity by refusing to support her. Coming to her senses, Dowling wrote an article about her experience. When "Beyond Liberation: Confessions of a Dependent Woman" appeared in New York magazine, it elicited an avalanche of letters. All over the country, Cinderellas came out of the closet, testifying to bafflement and anxiety over the inexplicable coexistence of two selves at war.

Clearly, Colette Dowling has hit an important nerve. In the same way that Betty Friedan identified "the Problem that has no Name" in the mid-'60s, Dowling has given voice to a conflict that a great many women now feel -- women who have acted on the insights of the new feminism and remain convinced of their importance. But the conclusions drawn in The Cinderella Complex are radically different from those Friedan set forth: Where The Feminine Mystique assigned a political reality to what many women had believed was their "neurotic inability to adapt to the feminine role," Dowling returns responsiblity to the individual. "It is the thesis of this book," she writes, "that personal, psychological dependency -- the deep wish to be taken care of by others -- is the chief force holding women down today. I calla this 'The Cinderella Complex' -- a network of largely repressed attitudes and fears that keeps women in a kind of half-light, retreating from the full use of their minds and creativity. Like Cinderella, women today are still waiting for something external to transform their lives."

Dowling adduces a bevy of statistics to support her contention that "women are keeping themselves down": in 1956, women earned 63 percent of what men did, and now they earn only 60 percent; two-thirds of women who work earn less than $10,000 a year; 80 percent of women workers hold menial or semi-skilled jobs. Can all this be the result of women's fear of success? What about the force of circumstance? Can it be blithely assumed that there are no longer any external obstacles to women's fulfilling economic and intellectual potential? Objective, material reality certainly existed for the original Cinderella -- she didn't choose to sweep the hearth rather than adopt a more lucrative profession because it confirmed her desire to remain helpless.

Even if one accepts Dowling's consclusions, there are other weaknesses in her reasoning that undermine the effectiveness of the argument. I was bothered, for instance, by something in her story that passes without comment from the author, who concentrates on the dissection of her own "fear of facing the world." Dowling's first husband, it seems to me, was afflicted with a far more serious case of "The Cinderella Complex" than his wife. There is much truth in her observations about her own experience, but the desire to furnish supporting evidence blinds her to the full complexity of the situation.

Many feminists will see The Cinderella Complex as yet another manifestation of the conservative backlach that threatens to engulf the advances women have won in the last 15 years, and to the degree that the book shifts emphasis from political analysis to self-scrutiny, they will undoubtedly be correct. The idea that women have only themselves to blame for failure to advance is not unlike the neo-conservatism claim that people are poor because unwilling to work hard enough.

It would be unfortunate, however, if this obscures the real insight Colette Dowling has to offer: that the liberation of women is a messy and often contradictory business; that the very process itself of necessity creates a painful set of double-binds that must be intelligently worked through before true autonomy can be achieved. The oversimplification that feminist ideology has sometimes been guilty of in the past has done it a disservice. The kind of revision and rethinking that The Cinderella Complex proposes, nevertheless, must be approached with more care and sophistication than are put to work here.