IMPROPER BEHAVIOR By Elizabeth Janeway Morrow. 240 pp. $15.95

ELIZABETH JANEWAY is a wonderful combination: a truly establishment figure (former president of the Author's Guild, former trustee of Barnard College, author of six novels, wife of one prominent establishment male and mother of another) who is truly a radical feminist. I'm not sure that either she or the women who invented that label and wore it with pride would be comfortable applying it to her, but Janeway does the truly radical thing. In four books of feminist analysis, she gets to the root of the matter, particularly to roots that other thinkers neglect, both male and female.

In Improper Behavior, Janeway deals with an aspect of power that nobody else has put into clear focus -- the power to define. This power labels people, events and things; places them on maps of family, community and societal relationships; and decides how important these entities are. Most important of all, definition prescribes action. It sets the rules by which we live. For Janeway, this process is part of a broader, Hegelian concept of power (as in her earlier work, Powers of the Weak): a dynamic relationship between the powerful and the weak. The weak accept the definitions and prescriptions of authority, but they can modify the social contract and change the behavior of the powerful. When they start to refuse their consensus, they indulge in what is by definition improper behavior, but that behavior is a warning that the maps must be re-drawn before society explodes into chaos.

Women are Janeway's primary and topical example, because women have been behaving improperly by challenging the rules of patriarchal authority for 20 years. She also uses Augustan Rome, the conquistadors' Central America and today's blacks and native Americans to illustrate the nature of definition in relations between the powerful (including the state as trickster-hero) and the powerless.

Without being in the least academic, she speaks in the tone and diction of an establishment thinker, the "objective" tone that the common reader thinks of as male, so it's almost startling when she voices radical feminist ideas (some old, some original). Among them are the use and misuse of menstruation to classify a group as inferior, the need to redefine "women's needs" as social entitlements (child care, for example), and the overriding need to make women primary participants in the very process of definition instead of letting men make the rules or persuading men to modify the rules. Even the familiar ideas are often compelling in Janeway's exposition.

HER INSIGHTS are less sharply honed, however, in the book's long look at television as cause and occasion of redefinition in culture and in politics, which needs deeper and better articulated analysis.

Even so, it's refreshing to find a sociologist of politics who knows that art connects the individual to the wider truths and myths of common experience, that serious and folk art both "place participants in time and space and existence," and that one of the most important changes television makes is to distract people from that function of art in classical definition. It's still useful to read a critic who notes that one way television changes the political process is by redefining the relationship between speaker and listener, by redefining the audience and, indeed, by labeling any member of the audience who responds to the actors "critic."

In her final pages, Janeway sees some hope because the category of citizens who can be defined as important enough to be listened to on public questions has grown substantially. "Top people are for once being asked to think their way into the minds of those who have been defined as children, or as 'others.' " But she emphasizes that blacks, native Americans and women find it harder to enter that category than white ethnics and challenges them, particularly women, to start redefining public affairs.

She particularly wants to redefine public affairs in ways that don't take for granted the polarization that we have grown up with for millenia -- the tendency to divide the world into us and them, ours and others. One of its primary sources is the difference between the sexes and one of its primary results is the way we define the difference between genders. The constant practice of dividing others in order to conquer also leads to the invention and establishment of hierarchy, a virtually universal strategy of patriarchal authority. I wonder if the tendency to divide into us and them is as exclusively a male trait as Janeway believes.

Whether it is or not, I'm sorry that she exhorted only women to find non-polarizing definitions. That implies that men are incapable of such discovery; I think we may be able to do it if we try hard enough, whatever our age-old habits. Redefinition won't work unless both men and women participate in reaching new definitions of proper behavior. :: Anthony Astrachan is the author of "How Men Feel: Their Response to Women's Demands for Equality and Power."