There was a ladies' tea at the Congressional Club yesterday, and it had much less to do with tea than it did with power. A lot of the women there said they couldn't even remember the last time they'd been to one. And nobody wore white gloves.

But when Nancy Reynolds -- Reagan intimate, Bendix Corp. vice president and a women of high-level access in a town absorbed with it -- gives a tea for her mother in the middle of a drizzly day, you come.

Nancy Reagan did. Barbara Bush did. Political wives Pat Haig, Nancy Thurmond and Jean Smith did. Establishment Democrats Polly Fritchey and Bess Abell did. And on and on through the 200-plus guests moving through the receiving line as it wound noisily down the stairs.

"I looked down the stairs and I saw all those women," said Virgil Clark, Reynold's mother and guest of honor, "and I thought, 'Heaven, there couldn't be any more!'"

But there were. Clustered around the band that played "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Collected around the cookies. And even sipping tea.

"This is a command performance," said one White House official.

"I don't go to teas," said Teresa Heinz, wife of the Republican senator from Pennsylvania."I did it because of Nancy. She's a good lady."

She is also a good liaison between the Reagan White House and Washington, past and present. Reynolds grew up here as a senator's daughter, worked for Gov. Ronald Reagan in California, then returned as a high-profile Bendix lobbyist. She can introduce Nancy Reagan to the friends and natives she needs -- and vice-versa. This was a fact not lost on many at yesterday's tea.

Which isn't to say the tea had nothing to do with Reynold's mother. It did. Virgil Clark is 80, the widow of former Sen. D. Worth (D-Idaho), and something of a firecracker. She knows lots of people from the days when teas were really teas.

"It was just the occasion I could think of to have all these people say hello," said Reynolds, who took a joking turn on the dance floor with the first lady as the band played the old Beatles song, "Yesterday."

Nancy Reagan arrived at this particular tea right at the beginning, wearing a gray Adolfo suit with red piping.

"Isn't she skinny?" said one guest.

"I suck in my stomach whenever I see her," said another.

"Hello, darling," said Erlenne Perkins, a friend from Los Angeles. Then she and the first lady hugged.

There was lots of that as Nancy Reagan moved through the bright spring suits, silk blouses and delicate kisses that left lipstick smudges on several cheeks. The first lady is good at this; she has a friendly word and warm glance for most she meets.

She didn't, however, have an explanation for her protocol chief's controversial curtsy to Prince Charles last week. Why did Leonore Annenberg do it? somebody asked.

"Oh," she replied, "I don't know."

And then she moved on, toward the tea.