"But I thought," interrupted Bernice in bewilderment, "that you despised little dainty feminine things like that."

"I hate dainty minds," answered Marjorie." But a girl has to be dainty in person. If she looks like a million dollars she can talk about Russia, ping-pong or the League of Nations and get away with it."

"What else?"

"Oh, I'm just beginning! There's your dancing."

"Don't I dance all right?"

"No, you don't -- you lean on a man; yes, you do -- ever so slightly. I noticed it when we were dancing together yesterday. And you dance standing up straight instead of bending over a little. Probably some old lady on the side-line once told you that you looked so dignified that way. But except with a very small girl it's much harder on the man, and he's one that counts."

"Go on." Bernice's brain was reeling.

Poor Bernice. There she was, trying so hard to be liberated, the model of the daring modern woman whose behavior so shocked contemporary America when her creator, the male Scott Fitzgerald, first brought her to life back in the wild and wicked '20s. If she could only have looked ahead to see what the struggle between the sexes, of which she certainly was a part, would have wrought in the decade we now have just passed.

Some more soundings from the '70s:

-- She carefully pumped out milk from her breast to leave behind with the housekeeper for her nursing baby, and then raced to catch the plane to keep the important business appointment.Upon arrival, she learned a crisis had developed: the baby refused to take the bottle. The housekeeper sounded desperate. She called another nursing mother, equally involved in a strenuous career, and asked for help. Granted. The baby was taken to the friend's house, and nursed on the substitute mother. Two Superwomen, vintage late '70s, collaborating to protect their careers -- and their offspring.

-- She knew it was over one night when, in the midst of a long intense conversation, he suddenly said, in surprise, "My God, I've never noticed, but you're an intelligent women."

-- She wanted to be treated like a woman who was also a person when it got personal, and like a person who was also a woman when it got impersonal. But she knew she would have settled to come home once and hear, "How was your day?" Instead, she decided to settle for coming home alone and hearing the sounds of silence . . .

-- She told her friend, another woman, the main reason her marriage didn't survive the months her husband was without a job was because he couldn't get it through his thick head his role was to be responsible to her, not for her.

--She realized, with a shock, that she had changed. Before, when people had asked why they weren't together any more, she had quipped, "because I probably would have strangled him if I'd come home and heard "you're late, when's dinner?" one more more time." But then one cold rainy night she arrived home, tried, to find the car out of commission, and heard herself saying, 'God damn it, where is he when I need him?'"

-- She learned something about other women last summer. If at least two of the women she invited to the beach house for the weekend had been married but hadn't yet met, the conversation was bound to end up in their trying to out do each other on who had married the biggest horse's ass.

-- She remembered the interview with the wife of a celebrity in the early '70s. The wife had said she slept with a man for one of two reasons -- because she loved him, or because she was being polite. And she remembered the reactions from those who read and talked about the interview. From women: knowing glances. From men: appalled looks.

If the '70s were marked by an internal political convulsion at home (Watergate) the profoundly affected our view of government and by an external THREAT OVER THE USES OF OIL (OPEC) that fuels our economy and affects our everyday lives, the great personal story of the decade dealt with women. The theme of women -- women alone, women with careers, women with women -- dominated the literature of the times and the films. Even the titles expressed the mass sentiments: "Starting Over" and "Coming Apart" and "An Unmarried Woman."

The questions no longer were over such things as to "have the affair," but to have the child, with or without the sanctity of marriage; to have the second one (often an even greater decision) at the possible expense of the blossoming career; to have a "relationship" (probably the greatest cliche of the '70s) perhaps with a partner of the same sex.

And with all the advances, there also came the penalties: the anguish, the pain, the sense of loss, the introspection, the false brave front presented to a watching world that became the lot of many women. So, at least, the picture drawn so often during the decade. When Radcliffe's Class of 1954 held its 25th reunion last srping, members received a booklet containing responses and observations about life from their peers. Two voices out of many:

"I would again put energy into raising children, as that can be a truly creative occupation, but I regret the time and energy which I devoted to marriage."

And:

"I was married a month after graduation and after four children and many happy years the marriage gradually fell apart and we divorced. So with three children gone, I've started to make another life for myself. I didn't plan or wish to find myself in this position at age 46, scrambling to earn a living and enduring the wrench of children leaving home with no one to commiserate with. But I have found unexpected pride in fending for myself and a certain pleasure in solitude, and am grateful for the chance to rediscover in myself strengths and aptitudes I had forgotten were there."

The same, of course, was true for many men; but only at the very end of the decade, it seemed solely from women onto the almost equally changing role of men. The '80s begin with one of the most popular -- and praised -- films highlighting the position of the divorced father (Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer) who raises the child instead of the mother.

When the bells pealed at midnight last night, ending the year and the decade, the census clock in the lobby of the Commerce Department building that soundlessly puts forth another figure every 10 seconds marking the birth of another American showed we were approaching a population of 220 million. Hidden in those figures are tabulations that represent changes in American life. They are changes that Vincent P. Barabba, the ebullient director of the census, says are rapidly reweaving the social and economic fabric of our society."

"Changes in the makeup of households in this country since 1970 constitute one of the most intriguing phenomenons in recent times," Barabba says. "We have seen a spectacular rise in the number of households from 1970 to 1980.Looking further ahead, we estimate that by the year 1990 we should see 97 million households in the United States.

"What we have observed here since 1970 is a dramatic increase in the number of one-person households. And current trends indicate that average household size may be below the 2.50 level in 1990. We have also noted a surge in nonfamily households totaling 66 percent since 1970 so that one out of every four households now consists of a person living alone or with nonrelatives, and possibly one out of three in 1990.

What Barabba points to involves virtually a revolution in the nature of American families and the position of women in the society. The most dramatic involve women.

American women are marrying later, having fewer children, getting divorced more frequently, and entering the labor force in ever-increasing numbers. Half of all married women now have taken jobs outside the home. During the '70s the proportion of women in the labor force rose from 40 to 50 percent -- and certainly will go up with at least equal rapidity throughout the '80s.

But it's the numbers of women either living alone or with men to whom they are not married that are most striking. Unmarried couples living together more than doubled in the decade. With one out of three marriages now ending in divorce, it means that half of all of today's children will live in a single-parent household at least part of their lives.

Those figures imply a strain on family life unlike anything Americans have ever experienced. Innocent Bernice, struggling so hard to be modern -- to bob her hair and raise her skirts above the knees, to smoke and drink and to "pet" in the back seat of the roadster -- surely would be stunned had she been able to foresee the age of abortion rights and job discrimination suits, of the emergence of women, finally but not fully, into thing approaching equal status with men.

An Associated Press reporter, Julie Dunlap, writing one of the seemingly endless whither-the-decade stories that poured over the nation's news wires in recent days (but writing with one of the nicest stylistic touches of the genre), took stock this way:

"In a decade, women have climbed mountains, dug mines, taken the vows of priesthood, ridden race horses, marched into West Point and Annapolis and become generals, astronauts, prime ministers and Rhodes Scholars. They've also organized against husbands who beat them and bosses who fondled them, struggled with the courts over abortion and turned to crime in increasing numbers. And theyVe watched -- with either glee or gloom -- as the proposed Equal Rights Amendment foundered, three votes short of becoming law, before the deadline for ratification was extended until 1982."

Washington isn't America, as everybody keeps reminding those of us who live here, but it reflects the country better than citizens at large realize. Every demographic statistic that illuminates the change we've encountered leading into the '80s can be matched here -- in working women enabling their families to keep ahead during virulent inflation, in unmarried couples with two good incomes fueling the great speculative housing boom of the large cities, and most particularly in the growing numbers of women professionals.

Now, with the advent of the '80s, consider the career of one female bureaucrat. She would be my nominee for "Man of the Year." Perhaps even "Women of the Decade" wouldn't be far off, symbolically speaking that is.

Joan Z. (Jodie) Bernstein now bosses some 500 other lawyers as general counsel of HEW, the government agency that more directly touches the lives of every American, in more ways, than any other. She had grown up in a family that stressed career opportunities and professional training, graduated from Yale Law School in 1951 at a time when hardly any women did so, and then briefly became a female pioneer. In a Wall Street firm, she was one woman among 200 men (except, as she says, "one old maid who did the wills and the trusts"). She also became the only woman lawyer in a Chicago firm. They had never had one. "You were not permitted to eat with the secretaries," she remembers, "and the men would not eat lunch with you. They didn't do that. And I'd have to call up friends in other places to find somebody to have lunch with. I can remember trudging down the street to have lunch with this woman I knew and thinking to myself, "this is crazy, just crazy.'"

But she, like others, felt conflicting pressures from the wave of domesticity that washed over the country in those postwar years, when all the men worked to achieve that house in the suburbs with the two cars and two washing machines and a wife and children. She joined the throng, got married, had children, and gave up her career for 12 years.

"I had an opportunity that other women didn't have," she says now, "but as I started that career I became aware that no matter what I did I would not be treated in my profession the same as everybody else. And that I would have to pay an extraordinary price for whatever level of acceptance I was going to get. I looked about me and saw that the women in that world were (1) not partners and, (2) were largely put in positions where they produced on paper. Their heads were used but they never got to see anybody. They were closed off. They were all what was known as spinsters, and they lived a very cloistered life.

"That seemed to me to be very unacceptable in my terms, because obviously I was a success-oriented person. That meant I wanted to be successful in every term in the society, which meant I needed to get married and produce some children, which is a very crass way of looking at things but I think it's probably quite right. I was not willing to be all that different from what people set as goals for a successful woman or person. There was just this enormous kind of pressure to do that, and I really felt in a most personal kind of way that I didn't have any alternative, that I really had to do that."

As the three children grew, the Bernsteins, like so many other couples, moved several times. Then, in 1966, they came to Washington. Over those years, she thought often of trying to resume her career but always discarded it.She was a full-time housewife, had a good marriage, loved the children, and found any potential jobs either boring, unrewarding, or not available. "I think I concluded finally that I should stay at home until the children were a more reasonable age."

It was in that state of mind that she came to Washington, where many of her former Yale law school classmates were prospering.

"I know exactly what I felt, or I think I do, at that time," she says. "I felt not so much resentful because I couldn't feel enough to feel resentful yet. I felt desperate. I felt absolutely desperate about myself. I felt I had, at that point, positioned myself as a housewife and mother which I knew was not going to satisfy me for longer than this. On the other hand, I was so totally terrified at the notion of trying to reenter a profession -- especially here -- where there were many colleagues and classmates I hadn't seen in a long time. The men were already partners in the best law firms in the country, and here I was with three years of experience and not having done anything for 12 years."

Had it not been for the help of a couple of close friends, she thinks she never would have made it. "I don't think I ever would have made it out of that morass of feelings without them -- feelings that were both feeling terribly sorry for myself and a lack of confidence. And such fear that you didn't even know if you could get yourself dressed to go downtown even to talk to anybody about going back to to work. It was so overwhelmingly terrifying that without them and the fact that I ended up working for a guy who just pushed me into it, I would have ended up doing something quite different. It was just the worst period of my entire life."

The man she worked for had been a friend at Yale. He told her the only solution was to go back to work full-time immediately. Plunge right into it. She went to work for his small law firm.

Her husband, himself a success, was entirely supportive. Still, as she says: "We had a lot of difficulties as we went through it. It's all very well to say, 'Yes, of course, my wife is wonderful. She's a lawyer and all that." But it's something else to change your lifestyle that you've gotten accustomed to over 15 years into having a Superwoman wife. It's quite something else again. I think we've survived that period but it took a long time."

There were many difficulties, many adjustments. She remembers the first time she went out of town on business.

"I very carefully arranged dinner and had it frozen and labeled and all that. I stayed up half the night. Because I had the responsibility for all food buying and cooking all food forever. For a person like me, always very ambitious and succeess-oriented in everything, it meant I had to continue to try to be as good a wife and mother as I thought I was supposed to be. I couldn't possibly say to myself: "Well, I just can't do that.' It took me a long time.

"I remember my little daughter saying to me at one time, "You're not liberated, mother. You're working two jobs.' This was years later when she was standing at the sink helping me with the dishes. That made a considerable impression."

There were other strains. The job was demanding personally and psychologically: she felt herself intellectually drawing away from home. "It was interesting," she says. "I've told this to other friends. It was not because Lionel thought I was being unfaithful in the usual way. It was because my whole life was involved with another man in a much more threatening way than any kind of sexual relationship would have been. I finally realized that he just couldn't take it, and that I either had to do something about it or risk the marriage. And I wasn't prepared to do that."

At that point, she moved into the the federal government. Working for a larger organization would allow more flexibility -- and more people to fill in if a family crisis arose. That was at the beginning of the '70s. A woman lawyer was still a rarity.

From that point, her career mirrored the rise of women professionally in the decade. She moved upward in stature and skill -- at the Federal Trade Commission, at the Environmental Protection Agency, and, finally, became HEW's chief lawyer.

"I do represent the generation that passed through all these things," she says. "By 1974, I guess, there was quite a lot of the effect of the women's liberation kinds of things personally and socially -- people going back to work, people going back to school. And certainly by 1975 that was quite full-blown. It was quite advantageious to be an experienced and a qualified woman lawyer, although the big wave still had not even come."

Jodie Bernstein looks at many of the younger professional women she meets in government and sees major differences."They don't have to cope with that aloneness, that solitariness, which I wasn't even aware of at the time but I'm very much aware of now," she says. "I hate to use the word interaction because it's so corny, but the kinds of things that always happen to men -- the collegiality, the comradeship of being with people and working with people at your level whom you are like is an extraordinary part of working together.As I said, I never knew I didn't have it. And these women don't even have to defend the fact that they don't like every other woman. Which I think is an incredible maturing, and a very significant change.

"As a matter of fact, I think there are many, many similarities in what's happened with women in the '70s and with racism in the '60s. I have discussed that with blacks and I see them having gone through many of the same kinds of things. I do think it I have a worry about the younger women -- and this is not only for women lawyers, but for everybody -- it's that they almost have reached polar extremes. They think they have to work. They think they have to go back to work I five days after they've had the baby. They have to nurse the baby on the job. They've done more of the sharing of chores with the husband. They enter into these arrangements and so forth. But nonetheless, I think it's craziness to position yourself like that again. I think it's absolutely insane. I don't know how these marriages will ever survive the tensions and the strains."

Her daughter's just graduated from Yale with a liberal arts degree and worries because she doesn't know ex-Yale with a liberal arts degree and actly what she want to do. Jodie Bernstein thinks that's fine. And when her daughter suggests that her mother is a model of a liberated woman, Jodie has a ready answer.

"Now, I suppose a woman can be as obnoxious as a man if she wants, or whatever other pattern she wants in her life. If she's willing to pay the price for it."