"Here," the woman said, passing a piece of paper down the courtroom bench. "This has been circulating around Eugene."

This is what it said:

"KNOW ALL PERSONS BY THESE PRESENTS: That I,..., as WIFE, for valuable considerations, do hereby forever release, acquit, discharge and covenant to release..., my HUSBAND, his heirs, executors, and assigns, from any and all claims, action, demands, damages, costs, wear and tear, on account of, or in any way arising out of having sexual intercourse with me....

"I further release HUSBAND from any failure to perform, caused by worry induced by the necessity of securing this advance release.

"This release expires at..., A.M., on..., 1979.... WIFE" Joke.

The woman who was showing it was Diana Godwin, legal counsel to the Oregon State Interim Judiciary Committee, and principal author of the 1977 senate bill that altered the Oregon criminal code so that a wife may charge her husband with rape. Godwin was not amused.

No, Greta Rideout said afterward, over and over, she did not feel like a martyr. She would be all right. She was stunned and disappointed and she thought the jury did wrong in acquitting her husband in the first case under the amended law, a case that attracted intense media attention all over the courty.

"Justice was not done," she kept saying -- but she would be all right. She would probably go back home to Spring Park, Minn., or somewhere thereabouts, and be close to her family for a while. Her father had seen her on television, seen the face of his skinny 23-year-old daughter while reporters spoke about her sexual history and this violent rape she had described, and he wept. He broke down crying on the telephone, Greta said. "I've never seen my father cry, never."

John Rideout said he figured he'd take a day off from work, thank you, and then go back to cooking at the Silverton Sambos. "I think the jury -- wasn't looking -- at the moral side of it," he said slowly, his voice cracking once or twice. "I think they looked at the evidence. I don't know why I say it, but that's what I truly believe." He said he was happy and nervous and too mixed up to say much of anything. "I think both of us have been hurt very deeply, and it's going to be a long, long while before eigher of us gets over this," John Rideout said.

They seemed so much smaller than the questions they had unleashed -- one thin blond woman with the face of a determined teen-ager, gazing at the jury with her hands clasped on her knees; and one thin darkhaired man, the traces of acne still on his cheeks, staring up at her with wide brown eyes that rarely blinked. "Burning holes through me," Greta Rideout said afterward several times. A man in the courtroom watched the two of them and said softly, "I think they're both a couple of losers, personally."

The state of Oregon versus John Joseph Rideout was not, technically speaking, a test case of anything -- not of women's rights, nor the validity of Oregon law, nor of the legal system's authority in violent sexual disputes between husband and wife. It was a criminal trial to decide whether an angry, 21-year-old, then-unemployed Oregon man named John Rideout had forced his wife Greta to have sex with him in thier apartment at about 3:45 p.m. on Oct. 10. She said he did; he said he didn't. That was all the jury, eight women and four men, had to decide.

Back and Forth

But no jury had ever been asked to decide such a thing before, and from Dec. 19 until John Rideout's acquittal eight days later, the courtroom was so crowded that the bailiffs had to turn away spectators who had come to see what would happen. It was a sober, interested low-key crowd; feminists, lawyers, Rideout's relatives, retired men and women, court employes who had sneaked away from their offices to watch the celebrated proceedings.

In the corridors, and during recesses. They argued back and forth.

A Salem surveyor: "I was talking to my wife about this and we kind of come to the same conclusion -- he wasn't violating her privacy, inasmuch as he already had that open."

A Portland feminist, now working in an anit-rape organization: "Men have a whole lot of power when it comes to sex. If they say no, there's not a goddamn thing you can do about it."

Charles Burt, defense attorney: "A woman who's still in a marriage is presumably consenting to sex... Maybe this is the rick of being married, you know?... If this law's interpretation isn't corrected it will bring a flock of rape cases under very bad circumstances.... The remedy is to get out of the marital situation."

Gary Gortmaker, prosecuting attorney: "Nobody should beat up on people and make them do what they don't want to do.... And when you're the mistreated side of it you should work in our system to resolve it... rather than eventually running away with the child, taking pills or bumping off the old man."

An elderly woman, yellow-haired and sipping coffee in the courtroom: "One thing's for sure. I think she's going to make a mint."

Greta Rideout told her landlady, almost two months after the incident she called rape, that a Los Angeles writer had telephoned her and offered her "an unbelievable amount of money" -- $50,000 -- for the story. She did not sign a contract, and testified that she does not know whether the writer is still interested, or even if his offer is legitimate. But the testimony apparently was damaging -- part of Burt's effort to portray Greta Rideout as an occasionally unscrupulous young woman, capable of lying, teasing and plotting to get what she wanted.

In the course of her unhappy two-year marriage to John Rideout she left him twice. They married after he had joined the Army, after she had already given birth to his child, and she finally traveled from Portland to his Georgia Army base for the wedding because, as she told an interviewer, "It seemed exciting flying to Fort Stewart to get married." Greta Rideout, according to court testimony, also told him his stepbrother had raped her and then later recanted, saying there had been an affair with the stepbrother but no rape; told him about lesbian sexual fantasis she said she had had; and became pregnant with another man's child after an affair in Minnesota during one of her efforts to leave the marriage. The pregnancy ended in abortion. She came back to Oregon with John Rideout because he asked her to, she said, and she wanted to salvage the marriage.

'No Other Recourse'

It was beyond salvaging, though, from both their descriptions, and for a week last summer Greta Rideout tried to leave him agian. But she ran out of money, spending the last three nights in a motel room she could not pay for, and when she finally returned to her husband again, "I had no other recourse," she said after the trial.

By the time they began fighting on Oct. 10, Greta Rideout knew that recent changes in Oregon criminal law permitted a wife to charge her husband with rape. She had called the Salem Women's Crisis Center in September, asking for legal advice, and the evening of Oct. 9 the subject of the rape law had come up as Greta and John Rideout were talking to a mutual friend.

From here the stories diverge. John Rideout testified that they began to argue early in the afternoon on Oct. 10 -- about a dollar he had taken from her purse, about their sex life, about the fact that he had just quit his job to start school on the G.I. bill. "She hit me first," he said. He said she kneed him in the groin. He said he slapped her, hard. Then, "I stopped myself, because I realized that I was really agitated," Rideout said.

Rideout said they both looked at the swollen eye in the bathroom mirror, and that he kissed her. Then they made love, he said. Was there any use of force, asked Burt. Rideout: "No, sir." Had this happened before -- fighting and then having sex? "Occasionally, yes."

Greta Rideout, who took the stand shortly before her husband and related raw, explicit details in a clear and steady voice, said Rideout had awakened from sleep when they were in their apartment together and demanded that they have sex. She said no. He insisted. "'You are my wife and you should do --' somewhere along that line -- 'you should do what I want,'" she testified he said. She ran from the apartment, but he finally caught up with her, she testified. "I told him if he touched me one more time in any way that his a -- would be grass," she said.

They returned to the apartment together, and then, Greta testified, John Rideout threw her to the floor, choking her, slapping her face, pulling her pants down, demanding that she cooperate. "I was trying to scream and at the same time get his hands off me," she said. She said she asked him why he was doing it. "He said, 'Because I can't stand you, because I can't stand you.' I said 'Why don't you just leave? Leave!' He said, 'Becase I love you. I love you, Greta.'"

Greta Rideout finally submitted, she said, because, "I thought I would have a broken jaw if I was hit any more."

"'If You Go to the Police...'"

She said he took her into her bathroom afterward. "'You're going to look at your face,'" she said he told her. "'This is what you'll get if you're not cooperating.'... he said 'If you go to the police with this I will lie straight through -- I will tell them your boyfriend did it... I will find you and when I do that will be the end of you.'"

Within three hours, after Greta Rideout had called the Women's Crisis Center and the Salem Police, she was given a medical examination by a doctor at Salem Memorial Hospital. The doctor siad in court that Greta Rideout had been bruised around the left eye and cheek, that "the skin on the lips appeared to me to be bitten," that the vaginal opening was reddened, that she had used no diaphragm or jelly, and that from what he had seen he believed "this probably was a force episode of intercourse."

On Oct. 13, after being questioned at the Salem police station, John Rideout was charged with rape. The charge was presented to him by Debra J. Cleveland, a detective on the Salem police force, and it wa apparently the first time a husband had ever been accused of raping his wife while they were living together.

Difficult Questions

The local newspapers began paying attention to the case, a Los Angeles Times reporter interviewed Greta Rideout at some length, and by the mid-December opening of the trial, national attention had focused both on the Rideouts themselves and the difficult questions raised by their case.

Should the criminal court system step into a marriage, even if the husband is accused of raping his wife? Feminists, the district attorney, and many others said yes, that rape is no more legitimate than wife beating. "The fact that a woman can be unprotected once she agrees to be married to somebody -- that she then leaves herself wide open for abuse -- I think that's very frightening," said Goodwin, who wrote the Oregon bill. (Two other states have laws similar to Oregon's, and New Jersey's goes into effect Monday.)

Traditionalists, the defense attorney, and the many supporters who sent letters and contributions to Rideout's defense team, said no -- that marital problems should be handled by a divorce judge, that any woman unwilling to have sex with her husband should simply leave the marriage, that the law has no business trying to distinguish in a marriage between forcible intercourse and the voluntary sex of a husband and wife who have just been fighting.

In any divorce case, argued Burt, this law would give a bitter woman unprecedented power. "The temptation to do harm to the other party is just too much to resist," he said. "This is an open invitation to a woman to make that kind of charge."

Nosense, responded Godwin and other advocates of the law -- few women are going to subject themselves to the embarrassment and pain of a public rape trial without some cause of complaint. Besides, Godwin said, "the DA is not going to go out there and make a fool of himself bringing a case without evidence."

Added Ann Skoe, Salem president of the National Organization for Women. "With all the women who have been raped and beaten by their husbands, if a few women used this for vengeance, I really don't care."

The jury members, following closely the instructions of Judge Richard Barber, never discussed the validity of the law itself. They found Rideout not guilty, as one elderly juror said afterward, because after all the conflicting testimony, "We just couldn't bring it out clear. It was six of one and a half dozen of the other."

"All of them flet that there would be another case in the future, and it would be a better case," said another juror. That is the sentiment shared by many observers in the legal and women's community -- that this was not an indictment of the law. But it is hardly an enthusiastic embrace either.

In fact, one Oregon man was reported to be initiating a petition for a state referendum on whether or not to repeal the law. "This was the first case," said Skoe, "and you can't choose which case you're going to get."

After the verdict Greta Rideout indicated concern that the outcome would discourage other abused women from filing suit. Skoe is convinced, like many of her colleagues, that it will take an enormously tough woman to bring the next case.

Greta Rideout is not sorry. The evening of the verdict, two hours after her husband walked stiffly away from the television chameras in the courthosue hall, Greta Rideout was telling any reporter who wanted to listen that she still believed she was right to do what she did, that she only hoped other women wouldn't be scared off. "I think if women had taken a stand a long time ago, the law would have been here a long time ago," she said. "Men would have sat down and meditated on what sensitivity they had about a wife -- and not letting this big macho image carry themm away."

She had some letters with her, too, eight of them from Portland, from E1 Paso, from Wrightsville, Pa., and Murray, Ky. "I am one of those multitude of vives who has has suffered untold agony at the nands of a brutal husband who insisted that he had his right to my body at any time regardless of my feelings or physical condition at the time," wrote the woman from Murray. "God bless you, Greta."

What does reading those letters feel like?

"Awful," said Rideout.