It could have been a woman's club luncheon in any affluent American suburb, except that it was happening in the East Room of the White House. Rosalynn Carter was there. There was a special emphasis on women's rights during the afternoon and most of the guests were or had been senators' wives.

"This luncheon is a ritual some people like to make fun of," said Nancy Stevenson. "You know, the Senate wives getting together and all that. But I have never failed to have a very special time at these luncheons and to have conversations with people I care about.

"However, I think today's was out of the ordinary."

It was. After the luncheon mulligatawny soup, salmon, vegetables and lemon mousse) had been cleared away, a dramatic presentation was given, based on another Eve Marriam's book, "Growing Up Female in America: Ten Lives," with dramatic readings from the letters, diaries and other writings of three American women from colonial times to the 20th century.

Geraldine Fitzgerald gave a colorful portrayal of "Mother" Mary Jones, one of the great symbolic figures in the American labor movement. Actress Carol Kane "Hestor Street") portrayed Eliza Southgate, an 18th-century schoolgirl who lived an ordinary life, marrying, moving to New York, having two children and dying at age 25. Maureen Anderman narrated vivid scenes from the life of Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, a pioneer woman minister in the wilds of Michigan during the 19th century.

Before the dramatic reading, a series of old rules applied to women was read off to the great amusement of the audience. They included such counsels as: "Avoid unnecessary exposure to the night air" and "Never call upon a gentleman unless he is a confirmed invalid."

Introducing the players, Rosalynn Carter said, "The theme of the day is women. I think this is a good time for women, and I think you have a representative deversity of American women here." She added that she supports the Equal Rights Amendment "wholeheartedly" and that she has been trying to think of ways to get people to change their minds about it.

"Most women think their lives will change drastically if the ERA is passed." she said. "We have to let them know that their lives will not be changed redically unless they want them to change or need them to be changed."

Among those present were Abigail McCarthy, former wife of former sen. Eugene McCarthey; Joan Mondale, Mrs. Edward Brooks Sr., the senator's mother; and perhaps the youngest member of the club, 26-year-old Jill Biden. Married to Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) last June, she was attending for the first time.

She quit her job as a schoolteacher after marrying and said that "being a Senate wife is a pretty full-time job." With her marriage, she inherited two sons, aged 8 and 9. "Yesterday was my first Mother's Day," she said with a big smile.

During the luncheon, music was provided by two of the leading musicians in the Washington area, Ralph Lee Smith, who plays the dulcimer, and soprano.Pat Kuchwara, who also join Smith in dulcimer duets - performing chiefly Appalachian tunes and old English songs that have migrated to this county.

The soft-voiced instruments (which look something like a wooden toy boat with a few guitar strings) often seemed lost in the buzz of luncheon conversation, but many sharp-eared Senate wives stopped on the way out to complement the musicians, comment on some familiar tunes and ask questions about the odd-looking instruments.

"We were asked, 'Do you mind being background?'" Smith said, "and we answered, 'Certainly not.'"

Like the musicians, many members of the audience are accustomed to being in the background, but nobody at the luncheon asked them if they minded.

They applauded when Mrs. Carter said: "I think we're all proud to be American women."