She was surrounded. Young feminists at her feet, family and friends hovering.

"I don't care anymore," said Mary Parkman Peabody, the star of the film. "I saw that publicity was so good for the civil rights movements-and I lost all shame."

This question of publicity, of showing yourself larger than life on film, comes up because three generations of women in the famous New England Peabody family talked on a documentary film that 220 invited guests had just seen at the Corcoran Gallery Wednesday night. And they had talked about everything-sex and marriage, abortion and contraception, politics and poverty.

Mrs. Peabody is 87 and looks like a pretty Eleanor Roosevelt; blue eyes crinkling, the smile stretching, parchment skin touched with rose.

She was 72 the day she lost all shame. Picked up from a counter she was trying to desegregate in St. Augustine, Fla., in 1964 and thrown in jail. Wife of the retired Episcopal bishop of central New York. Mother of the governor of Massachusetts. The movement would benefit from the stir-that day when the Boston Brahmin came South to a lunch counter.

Going public was not all that easy: "New Englanders may be happily amused or disgusted at things-but they don't tear a passion to tatters. I think that's a negative," Mary Peabody once said. "Growing up in Boston, I felt that reserve all around me-and it was bred into me. I don't approve of it but I can't help myself."

And therein lies the fascination of "The Female Line." Mrs. Peabody, her daughter and granddaughter in point-counterpoint; revealing, giving up a part of that inbred reserve and privacy on the wide screen. Her daughter, Marietta Tree, was the first female U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and distilled politics through such friends as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson and Winston Churchill.

Her granddaughter, Frances (frankie) FitzGerald, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Fire in the Lake," a penetrating analysis of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Why the three women agreed to do the documentary becomes clear when you know that the producer is freelance photographer Pamela Peabody-daugther-in-law of Mrs. Peabody, sister-in-law of Tree and FitzGerald's aunt. "I think they were just trying to be nice to me," said Pamela Peabody, who is doggedly trying to peddle the film to PBS or the networks to make some money back on the $80,000 venture and to launch a film-making career.

Layers of family civility entered into the agreement. Said Frankie FitzGerald, "If your sister-in-law or aunt or daughter-in-law asked you, would not say yes?"

They all knew they were elegant show items of some value who could help a family member. But now, after seeing themselves, they feel-with the exception of Mrs. Peabody-discomfort. FitzGerald and Tree have some feeling that their views were distorted; strained to fit a point-counterpart mosaic that stressed differences.

So now there is a dissension yet reserve about saying so; the muted quotes of members in a family once nurtured on the precept that your name appears in print only three times in life-at birth, marriage and death.

The main family concern seems to be the image of Tree in the film. Tree lives in a high-powered world-a partner in an international city planning firm and member of the boards of PanAm, CBS, United States Trust Co. in the film, Tree often appears elitist-sweeping into a black limousine or holding forth in her New York apartment. Wednesday night's audience laughed at her performance several times. The derision hung in the room as Tree said, "We have no class hangups at all compared to other countries. That's one of the main reasons I'm proud to be an American, because everyone does feel equal," -moments after being served by her black butler in her elegant Barbadian "beach house" that looks more like Tara.

"It's not fair to poor Marietta," said one member of the family, who paused, then murmured, "but it does fit her to a T."

Tree and FitzGerald did not show up up for the film. "I simply loathed myself," said Tree on the telephone from New York. She is given to talking in italics with a slight English accent acquired through 31 years of marriage to her second husband, English multimillionaire Ronald Tree. "But I'd rather not be quoted. I must hold my tongue. I wish Pammy well."

"I thought the film was awfully hard on mother," FitzGerald said. "The limousine was rented not hers, and the film passed over the black guests at the table. I thought I came off very sour. I guess we just were not terrifically good actresses, except for grandmother. Mother is not as frivolous as she seemed and I am not as hard-bitten as I seemed."

Pamela Peabody, with some distress, continues to push her film. "I like and admire Marietta-but it's hard not to see her the way she is."

The women were interviewed separately and their ideas later spliced together on each topic. The visual contrast is often striking-Mrs. Peabody in her spartan Maine summer home full of well-worn furnishings ("I believe 'old-fashioned' would cover it all"); her granddaughter in jeans walking through the woods or in her booklined study; Tree in her exquisite Manhattan apartment.

Some viewers thought the film idea "fascinating" but that it fell rather flat. "It's hard to sustain something when the whole action is dialogue," said one.

But for family, there was a special interest. Langdon Parker Marvin Jr.-in the crunch at the reception following the film-speaking with Groton lockjaw, explained, "FDR was my godfather. He was daddy's law partner.

"Now cousin Mary (Mrs. Peabody) is down-to-earth simplicity herself. Cooks and markets herseflf. Marietta was the first B.T.O. I ever met. Big Time Operator. She'd visit in New York and arrive with never less than 15 trunks and I'd cart them up the stairs and she'd halt at the third-floor library and be on the phone in a dash, 'give me Palm Beach, give me London.' Oh I don't think the film unfair. It's just simply Marietta."

Her mother said, "Marietta is very committed to democratic ideals. I admire her very much, and all the things she did. (Tree cosponsored with Eleanor Roosevelt some of the first fair housing legislation). She was very much involved in a hospital that took Negroes. And you don't have many who do this in Barbados, but her dinner parties are always mixed.

"I didn't like seeing myself. I kept wishing that old hag would get off. And I know Marietta doesn't like the film but I don't think I should say anything," continued Mrs. Peabody.

"I know some people are saying that limousines and liberals don't go so well." But," she asked, "how are we going to get along in this country without some rich liberals?"

Endicott Peabody, the former governor of Massachusetts and son of Mrs. Peabody, and his wife, Tony, had invited all 20 guests to their Georgetown reception. Nearly everyone showed. There were frizzed-haired feminists and friends of Pamela Peabody's from her days as director of Pacifica radio station to old-line Republicans and an Auchincloss or two.

It was, in fact, an Auchincloss who immortalized Mary Peabody's father-in-law,Endicott Peabody, the founder of Groton. Louis Auchincloss, who patterned the principal character in his novel "The Rector of Justin," after him. In time-honored family discontent at roman a clef depictions, Mrs. Peabody said, "We were all furious at it. It wasn't Mr. Peabody at all. I loved my father-in-law. He was a marvelous man, and he loved his children too."

"The Female Line" is roman a clef autobiography or novel updated, the cinema verite memoir. It has a special cachet in Boston-New York-Washington circles, that some viewers think might be lost, say, in Dubuque. Still, many feel it is PBS fare. "Mobil will buy it," flatly predicted one guest. "This is a class film and Mobil adores class."

The documentary ventures the intriguing premise that "people who are raised or live close together all their lives seldom say anything of importance to each other however intrinsically interesting each of them may be." Pamela Peabody said, "Members of a family figure out very quickly what the others think about certain things, and they don't want to bring them up too often, unless they're interested in having a fight.

"The idea of not talking about sex and the certain repression that was in that family I think is maybe New England."

Mrs. Peabody concurred. "That's absolutely true. We don't talk about the intimate things like sex. I was fascinated by what my daughter and granddaughter had to say. I didn't know how they think about these things. When we meet we only talk about little things."

She chuckled and said "talk of sex used to embarrass me. I've been graduated a bit. Now I almost talk right out about it. I remember interviewing a young lady who was going to lodge with me. She asked, 'could I have my boyfriend in?' and I said, 'absolutely no sex in my house.' She didn't come as a boarder."

FitzGerald, 38, is not married. At 7 her mother tested her intelligence and found her a "genius of the highest order." Her second book on history text books and education, and serialized in the New Yorker, will be published soon. FitzGerald's articulate opinions are tinged with a cool empathy, and quiet passion about problems in America.

At times the film illustrates a universal generational change in women's lives.

On contraception: Mrs. Peabody was raised in an era when contraception, almost unheard of, was, as the narrator says, "to most decent people, clearly against God's will." Tree, 61, was raised in an age when virginity was supposed to be 'saved' for the honeymoon.

FitzGerald said, "Contraception is one of the most important things that has happened to change social relations. Without contraception, there is a very great case to be made for a man looking at a woman as his property."

On sex: Mrs. Peabody-"Too bad nowadays there is so loose a pattern of sex life so that apparently people can live together without being married and they think that's working out well." Tree-"Promiscuity must be damaging to the spirit . . .Perhaps sex without love really is a BORE." FitzGerald-"I think that the kids who grew up in the '60s have a much better attitude toward sex than people of my generation. There's none of this 'grasping' aspect about it. Sex isn't looked upon as a conquest of the woman by the man."

The narrator points out that their view of women's role in the world are "entirely different."

FitzGerald: "The women's movement is an answer rather than a challenge-to try to settle matters that were already there."

Her grandmother: "The women's movement offers some hope for a longer life for men. I feel that men have borne the burden of the household. I always feel in a home I like to have the man be the real head of the house. There ought to be really only one head and it's disagreeable," she said with a slight chuckle, "when the woman is."

FitzGerald said: "I think the disintegration of society hurts women most. Women are not brought up to take coherent responsibility for their own lives. Some 50 percent of all women are in the work force and yet they often don't see this as permanent. Often they don't see education as relating to the rest of their lives, except as a decor."

Mrs. Peabody worries that women today will emphasize careers to the extent of neglecting family. Her granddaughter feels day-care centers are a "real necessity. It just seems the first thing that our society can do."

Her mother views the career wife tied down by her husband's job: "It's impossible for the wife to pick up. I tried to pick jobs where my husband went. Once I got elected to the state constitutional convention and had to work in Albany. I simply had to be there in August, the month we usually went to Florence in Italy. But I arranged for a very attractive apartment in Albany . . . there were the baths, the ballet, golf for him, anything he could possibly want on a holiday. At the end of the month he said to me very seriously, 'Don't let this ever happen again.'"

They all agree that abortion-"a horrid subject," as Mrs Peabody said-is, nonetheless, a necessity.

The one subject on which Mrs. Peabody and her daughter strongly disagree is the Mideast. Mrs Peabody is pro-Arab, Tree-Pro-Israel. FitzGerald understands both sympathies. "They are always on the side of the underdog, and in this situation, either side could be said to be the underdog."

Whether or not the film is ever shown to any but select circles, the family's discreet dissension is not likely to die soon.

There is, you see, the book, Tree sounds perfectly horrified at the thought of her documentary views appearing in print, but all three women have signed away authorization rights. And the documentary's director, Robin Hardy, has a book under contract to Doubleday. CAPTION: Picture 1, Mary Parkman Peabody, left, Frances FitzGerald and Marietta Tree; by James Moore; Picture 2, Pamela Peabody, by Joe Heiberger