"I always kid my family that if I should die tomorrow they'd be in a heck of a mess. I mean, they wouldn't even be able to find their underwear ."

"I came out of the divorce court with a cash settlement of $2,500 and was told I was lucky to get it. I figured it out: 23 cents a day for 31 years of hard labor ."

"I don't know where to turn.I'm alone with no assets. Except for part-time jobs as a waitress I've never worked outside the home and find now that I am not qualified for a self-supporting job. I can't bear the thought of welfare ."

These are the voices of American homemakers. They wash stacks of dirty dishes, clean millions of homes daily, raise the children, make the beds and scrub the toilet bowls of the nation.

Although popular attention has been focused on the flood of women into the workforce, "homemakers," say organizational psychologist Rae Andre, "still comprise the largest group of workers in America.

"The flip side of the famous statistic that more than half of all married women are working outside the home, is that almost half of them are still at home full time -- almost 24 million of them. And they are, as usual, finding their interests overlooked, or worse, exploited."

Pointing to the recent Supreme Court ruling that a military wife has no right to share her ex-husband's pension after a divorce, Andre snaps, "On the one hand we say marriage is a partnership, where the wife's contributions at home make it possible for the husband to go out and work. Yet the Court says the money earned belongs solely to the person who got the paycheck.

"Which means a woman's worth at home counts for nothing."

This is a classic case of what Andre calls "the domestic double standard" (putting homemakers on a pedestal while at the same time relegating them to second-class citizenship):

"Homemakers have been told that their contributions are priceless," she says, "but most of them have earned neither salary nor security for their work. They have been told that they are valuable members of society, yet they receive few of the benefits our society provides even its lowest-paid members."

Perhaps most grim is the plight of the displaced homemaker, the middle-aged and older woman who -- through divorce or widowhood -- find themselves alone, improverished and unable to find employment after devoting a lifetime to nurturing a family.

It was the dilemma of a displaced homemaker close to Andre that launched her on a year-long project, interviewing homemakers and compiling research on their problems and solutions. The result is Homemakers: The Forgotten Workers (University of Chicago Press, 299 pp., $15), geared "to bringing homemaking into the sphere of legitimate, valued work.

"As an organizational psychologist, a lot of what I do concerns the quality-of-work-life," says Andre, 35, an assistant professor of industrial administration at the General Motors Institute in Michigan.

"When you look at homemaking as a job -- apart from the emotional baggage that goes with thinking in terms of being a mother and wife -- you find that the quality-of-work-life quotent is very low."

Homemaking ranks low, she says, in most factors of high-quality work life, such as opportunity for advancement, growth potential, interaction with other people and job satisfaction. On a few factors, like autonomy, it ranks high.

"The homemaker's problems begin," she says, "with the deceptively simple fact that she receives no salary for her work. Even when you say you're equal partners in a marriage, there's a very subtle but important distinction between who gets the paycheck and who doesn't. Why do you think men have the expensive hobbies like cameras and stereos and snowmobiles and women have hobbies like sewing and crafts?"

(If all the chores of a homemaker with two preschoolers were tallied at the going rate, according to the American Association of University Women, her salary would be about $35,000 a year.)

But short of homemakers hiring each other to do their work (which several women have done, says Andre, to become eligible for Social Security), they are unlikely to get a paycheck for their job.

And in a society that often measures worth in dollars, homemaking, she says, has become a low-status, low-security, low-power job.

"The mood among homemakers," says Andre," is anxious -- maybe even angry. They feel betrayed. The divorce rate continues to rise, advertising continues to portray them as empty-headed nits who can't mop a floor and society continues to ignore their needs."

Homemakers also feel betrayed by the women's movement, "because they've bought the media stereotype that feminism is anti-homemaker -- which is not true.

"Feminists rejected the implications of the role of housewife-mother not because they objected to the role itself, but because it was, for all practical purposes, the only role permitted to women."

Although Andre says the women's movement has helped homemakers -- particularly with respect to divorce laws, credit, Social Security and battered wives -- she admits that "until lately feminists had done very little to help homemakers in the name of homemakers."

But today, "feminists are becoming more equally attentive to both sides of the choice model they have always espoused." (Feminism's founding mother Betty Friedan, for example, calls it the "second phase . . . embracing the family in new terms of equality and diversity.")

This "new homemaker movement," predicts Andre, will focus on helping homemakers take an economically-valued place as respected workers in society. She envisions increasing the job's status through legislation (see box ) and corporate policies -- like flex-time and paternity leave -- that acknowledge the importance of the family.

"That would help men, too. Right now there are only about 300,000 househusbands in the country. But there are lots of men who would move into home-making-at least parttime -- if they wouldn't get ostracized at their jobs or laughed at by their buddies."

Andre, who calls herself "a part-time homemaker," says she is unlikely to ever be a full-time homemaker "since I don't plan on having children." Despite predictions that by 1990 only one mother in four with young children will be able to afford to stay home full time, Andre maintains the homemaking profession is here to stay.

"The reality is that someone is going to have to take care of the home. The average young couple will probably want one person to stay home when their children are young, and may save and live more frugally to do it. Very few will be homemakers for 30 or 40 years. They're more likely to be at home 4 or 6 or 10 years."

The first step in the new homemaker's movement, she says "is for homemakers to start consciousness-raising groups, talk about their concerns, support each other and decide where and how they can take action.

"Like any new movement, it's got to begin at the grassroots level."