Many of the lawyers and civil rights workers who came to bid goodbye to Eleanor Holmes Norton, the outgoing head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, had spent their post-Reagan Budget Day reassessing their agendas and gathering their strengths. So the mood around the Fort McNair Officers' Club was a pattern of long silences, firm grasps on the shoulders and strained levity.

Eve Wilkins, a top official of the Children's Defense Fund, had spent the day with family and nutrition experts. "We were trying to figure out what was what, what was left, and what bases were covered for reactions," said Wilkins. "We started drafting a letter that will go out to congressmen next week about not only the dangers of the cuts but the quickness of the process."

The people over at Mildred Goodman's civil rights shop at the Department of Transportation were "too numb," as she described it, to develop new strategies. "There's a lot of apprehension about what the cutbacks mean for people in general. People are afraid of what was said and what wasn't said," said Goodman. And from Herb Wilson, referring to specific cuts his Health Services Administration would receive under the Reagan plan: "The feeling is despair . . . the thought of losing eight hospitals."

In the midst of all the regrouping, Norton managed to hug old friends, like civil-rights pioneer Clarence Mitchell, Howard University Law School dean Wiley Branton and NOW president Eleanor Smeal, pay attention to her two children and listen to in-house jokes about her three years at the agency. When one of the commissioners, Armando Rodriguez, described the prime quality of Norton, who is known for her quick analysis and causticity or "stubbornness with dignity," her well-represented staff moaned loudly.

When a phony telegram from Jay Parker -- the Reagan transition team official who said the agency was responsible for a "new racism" -- was introduced, much hissing arose. "His points were ridiculous," said Norton. Speculation about her successor brought weak smiles and snears from some of the guests. Shirley Temple Black, the actress who once served as ambassador to Ghana, was a hot rumor a few days ago. "When I heard that, I said, 'Why not Mickey Mouse,'" said longtime lobbyist Yvonne Price. The names circulated last night included former civil rights leader and Reagan supporter Ralph Albernathy, New York attorney Gloria Toote and president EEOC commissioner J. Clay Smith. Smith declined to comment on any appointments.

As for her own future, Norton refused to comment on former Rep. Robert Drinan's information that "her name is in the hopper for a post at Georgetown law." But she did say she would spend the next year writing a book at the Urban Institute. "It's something I wanted to do," she said, "because the quality of debate over affirmative action has been polemic.

"I want to sort it out."