RICHARD CONOBOY listened, and he heard the cry of the feminists demanding economic equality. So he decided to do his part to see they get it. When he goes out with a date, he expects her to pick up a fair share of the expenses.

But things aren't working out that way.

Even the women "who talk most about being liberated," says Conoboy, 38, a recently divorced ex-Army major who lives in Columbia, Md., "still want men to call them up for dates, to drive, to pay and to choose where to go. It's business as usual for them.

"I won't stand for that," says the husky, good-looking blond. "I expect them to be as responsible as I am for paying according to their ability." This stand, he admits, hasn't helped his love life.

Conoboy has joined the men's movement.

Frustrated or angry or confused about what it means to be a male in today's rapidly changing society, American men are banding together to form a national men's movement. Though their numbers are still small, their efforts are picking up momentum. In June, two serious attempts to establish a national men's organization got under way almost simultaneously.

The purpose: To help forge a new equality between the sexes and to reevaluate the male role in our culture.

The success of the women's movement is forcing men to grapple with the often-complex changes in their lives at home and on the job. What women have achieved for their sex amounts to a cultural revolution, and the impact on the men in their lives, like it or not, has been tremendous.

For many men, this is a time of bewildering transition. Raised, perhaps, in the role of family breadwinner, males find themselves prodded by a working wife to pitch in with the dust mop. It is shaking up fundamental assumptions of what they had expected of marriage.

Some are angry at the "male-chauvinist-pig" names hurled by a few leaders of the women's movement and unwilling to accept the blame heaped on males for keeping women subservient in the past. Or, like Conoboy, they see woman failing to live up to the standards of equality they expect of their male companions.

And other men, watching women awaken to their plight in our culture, have begun to question how society has discriminated against the male sex. "Hey, what about us?" they are saying. "We've got troubles, too."

While the women's movement focused on power issues such as job equality -- because that is where society dealt them the weak hand -- men's issues tend to be the family, relationships, health and dependency that often have played a lesser role in a man's life. Would a real man cry? Do wife and children ever come before job? Is he working himself to an early death?

There are other voices:

"I had been married for 22 years and had four children," says Gerald A. Silver, 49, an affable Los Angeles City College professor of business administration. Then, "With little warning, disaster struck." His wife filed for divorce. "I found myself forced out of the house that had been my home for 15 years. I was excluded from the lives of my children and separated from my familiar surroundings and the things I held dear."

Silver has joined the men's movement.

Four years ago, Tony Krebs, 26, until recently director of a Seattle men's project, attended an Ivy League college "which tended to push very heavily the traditional macho role of working at all costs, even your health." Fellow students were seen "as competitors, not colleagues."

Krebs has joined the men's movement.

Eric Johnson, 30, is a Boston insurance representative whose family has a history of civil rights activism dating back to the pre-Civil War Underground Railway. Because he puts in a 60- to 70-hour work week, Johnson fears sometimes that be, too, is "playing the traditional male role" of putting job ahead of family.

But he has worked out a schedule that permits him to go home for a couple of hours at midday to be with his baby daughter -- and give his wife "a break" from child care. As a parent, he is concerned about "what kind of training men are given as parents. Boys are discouraged from playing with dolls," which is one way girls begin to acquire the nurturing skills of adulthood many men lack.

Johnson has joined the men's movement.

At one point two years ago, Richard Lamson, 28, a computer programmer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, felt "really depressed. 'Gee,' I thought, 'all of my friends are women. I don't have any male friends.' I basically went looking for a support group of men." Among other things, "We discussed ways in which it is sexually difficult for men as well as women -- the pressure on men to perform. I took away the feeling that it is okay to feel like not having sex sometimes. The traditional men's role doesn't allow this."

Lamson has joined the men's movement.

When Naomi Penner, a Long Island teacher, helped found her community's chapter of the National Organization for Women, she opposed the exclusion of men. "We have to see each other's points of view," she says. "For a long time, I've felt the polarity of the sexes. We're brought up with different roles, different experiences, different values. Then we're expected to live together in the closest bond. We've got to change something."

Penner has joined the men's movement.

Feminist Betty Friedan has recognized what she calls a "quiet movement" of American men, who are looking for "self-fulfillment beyond the rat race for success" and "a role in the family beyond the breadwinner."

Far from cohesive, the movement is developing along at least two divergent paths. Leaders of both have been bickering for some time.

One faction is made up chiefly of ardent supporters of the women's movement. Calling themselves feminist men, they see their function as helping men shed the role of oppressor of women. Sometimes, the other group believes, they work against the best interests of the male sex. The second faction -- which backs the feminist goals of equality but not the anti-male rhetoric -- sees itself standing up for the rights of men overlooked in all of the attention focused on women. They are known as men's rights advocates.

Few at this stage foresee the men's movement matching the political success of the feminists, though that is not ruled out. For one thing, it is easier for women to unite around issues of money and power that can be fought for in courts and legislatures than it is to raise a male rallying cry around the less specific concerns of health and personal relationships.

"We males are hurting," says Jay Smith, an education professor at Adelphi University on Long Island, "and few men and women realize it. Our wives are questioning where they're at. No one is helping us question where we're at." Smith is a leader of Free Men, a growing voice for men's rights with chapters in Washington, Boston and Long Island.

Many males, say Free Men activists, are uncertain about what is expected of them under the new rules of sexual conduct. Do women want equality or don't they? For women to practice an honest equality, says Conoboy, another leader in Free Men, they are going to have to take it upon themselves to learn such traditional male tasks as maintaining the family car -- especially, if they expect the man to share the chores of the kitchen. No more, "Hubby, take the car in."

Instead, "I'd tell them, 'You've got two arms and two legs.' What makes them think I'm an expert on engines because I'm a man." On the other hand, men shouldn't expect to escape cooking pleading, "It's a mystery to me."

"It's time for a men's movement," says another strong voice of Free Men, Fredric Hayward, 35, of Cambridge, Mass. He founded Men's Rights Inc. to seek legislation to correct what he sees are laws that discriminate against males. One such issue is "economic discrimination" against the under-25 male who usually pays more for automobile insurance.

Hayward also is spotlighting the need to do something about lengthening the average lifespan of the American male, who dies years earlier. "On every scale,' he told a men's gathering, "the male is the gender with greater health problems."

"Why aren't you as angry that you will live eight years less than she as she is that she will make 59 percent of what you will make? Personally, I'd rather have the eight years."

Other Free Men issues: statutory rape laws "that view all men as aggressive and all women as passive"; the draft, which "assumes all men are strong and all women are weak"; alimony laws requiring an umemployed male to pay support to a wage-earning ex-wife; and abortion: "Is it equitable for a man to have financial responsibility for a child while having had no say over whether the pregnancy should have been aborted?"

Society conditions males, Smith says, "to be tough and to be strong. Boys get that message very early. We put a lot of pressure on boys to be athletic." Their maleness becomes "defined on how competent they are in sports. A lot of boys are not interested. And the boys who aren't feel inadequate. That hurts them in terms of self-concept."

Smith sees evidence the men's movement is making headway in the fact that a Free Men-sponsored conference at Adelphi, "Freeing Men From the Macho Mold," drew more than 400 on a sunny Saturday in October to consider such topics as "male sexuality" and on-the-job stress. It was the stress workshop that lured William Heacock, 58, an electrical engineer from Syosset, N.Y.:

"My work is challenging and satisfying, but it's tough work, I found out I've got to take care of myself physically."

Free Men has joined fathers' groups throughout the country that have formed around the somewhat more tangible issue of fathers' rights in child custody cases. The courts, these fathers argue, almost always award custody of minor children to the mother.

Fathers' rights activists -- representing fathers' groups in 21 states, the District of Columbia and Canada -- and Free Men leaders met in Houston last summer to form the National Congress for Men to push for reform of divorce and custody laws. By November, the executive board established a speaker's bureau to promote the Equal Rights Amendment.

"We're trying to make people realize it's a men's issue as well as a women's issue," says coordinator Dan Logan, 34, a writer and photographer who heads the Washington chapter of Free Men.

Feminist men and their supporters have been gathering annually for the past seven years at Men and Masculinity conferences. Like the Free Men, they are teaching males they don't have to be cool, detached and job-centered to be masculine. In consciousness-raising groups, "You learn," says Eric Johnson, "to be caring and sensitive toward the people you feel strongly about."

Johnson was a coordinator for the 7th National Conference on Men and Masculinity, whose members -- unlike Free Men -- tend to see the male sex as responsible for the oppression of women and obligated to reversing that. Held last June at Tufts University, the conclave drew 600, many representing the more than 30 men's centers in cities across the country.

Tony Krebs' Men's Program Unit in Seattle is one such center. Among those who turn out to consciousness-raising sessions, he says, are men who in this age of the new woman are "having problems in their relationships. Women are saying, 'You have to adjust. I won't take the same kind of behavior.' The men ask, 'What do I do?'"

Others, he says, "want to be closer to other men. They don't have that many male friends on any level of intimacy beyond talking sports, politics and shop. Or they know women in support groups, and say, 'I want some of that, too.'"

Following the Tufts meeting, efforts began in the fall to bring these local groups under a feminist men's national organization, with an elected national council to spur the formation of many more groups in the next few years. Moves also are being made to strengthen efforts aimed at counseling men who batter women to end their urge for violence.

To Bob Brannon, a Brooklyn College psychologist and feminist men's leader, men face a number of obstacles in developing their human side. For one thing, they have difficulty expressing their emotions. "They have a difficulty with intimacy and tend to feel human relationships are not as tangible as money."

They have a terrible fear of anything that seems feminine, he says, no matter how petty. "They use cosmetic products only if they are packaged with a macho image." They have a need to be looked up to "to be somebody. For most men, the only way is through occupational success."

And, they think they have to be "tough, confident, self-reliant. They come across like John Wayne. If they have physical symptoms, they don't go to a doctor" soon enough.

One of the problems of organiaing a men's moment is that "most men are not aware that they should be angry," points out Tom Williamson, 37, of Manhasset, N.Y., a sociologist who heads the Long Island chapter of Free Men. "They come out of curiosity, and they're hooked."

If the movement is to flourish, there are other obstacles, not the least of which is the split between the two sides. Though they agree on many concerns, they don't accept each other's attitude toward the women's movement.

Feminist men, argues Williamson, "buy into two things the Free Men do not: The fundamental guilt trip that men are oppressors of women, and they place the emphasis on women's issues. That takes a priority over men's issues."

Free Men, he says, contends "men did not oppress women. If anything is wrong, it's the contribution of the system. A lot of our customs and habits developed a century ago." And, "In Free Men, issues are a priority."

Logan adds: "We stand up to the abuses of feminism. But we're much more pro-women than feminists were pro-men." Leaders in the women's movement, he says, urge women to avoid falling into "the male power trap" on the job. But the fact that women do just that anyway makes it appear to him more a "human power trap" than one only males are guilty of. "Sexism is a two-way street."

Counters the feminist-men's Brannon: "Free Men is a magnate for the anti-feminist backlash.What I consider a men's movement is a group of men favorably disposed toward feminism." Why such a strong pro-feminist emphasis? "People are oppressed in two ways -- the power dimension and the role dimension." Women suffer both; males only one. In legal, economic and physical safety matters, "it is clear that men are beneficiaries and women are powerless."

Adds Richard Lamson, who also helped coordinate the Tufts conference:

For women, "It's an immediate sort of survival. The kinds of things men are talking about are not immediately apparent. The individual man is not threatened. We don't see it as a survival issue."

Seattle's Krebs says he has been "disappointed" that more efforts haven't been made "to set up some dialogue" between the two factions. "I see a lot of overlap." Eventually, says Johnson, who describes himself as being "on the fence," the two sides "have to have a dialogue. The profeminists buy the feminists lock, stock and barrel; the Free Men take 95 percent of it lock, stock and barrel, and bicker about the other 5 percent."

One other factor separates the two. The feminist men have welcomed homosexuals to their national conferences, and include a number of workshops directed to them. A large percentage of those who show up are gay, says Los Angeles psychotherapist Jeffrey Beane, 34, active in a recent California regional conference, who has attended all seven national gatherings.

The Free Men conference at Adelphi, on the other hand, was criticized by some participants for not placing any gay topics on the agenda. Explains organizer Jay Smith:

"It's very tricky. I think gays play a role as one group within the men's movement. But to get most men to see the type of things we're talking about is very difficult. If you question the male stereotype, there is a fear underneath that you are gay or homosexual. If we're going to reach a cross section of males, we have to be careful in the beginning stages to present as broad a picture as possible."

What shape the men's movement will take as it continues to grow is unclear. Psychologist Herb Goldberg, author of "The Hazards of Being Male," sees the achievement of male humanness issues attainable more through consciousness-raising than the formation of political action groups. Free Men's Williamson, on the other hand, backs political action. The men's movement, he belives, can form the equivalent of a NOW "if there are a few people determined enough." What is necessary, he says, is to generate sympathy for such a movement.

"The sympathy was there for the women when they raised their voices. Men are being ignored, and that will continue until sympathetic support systems are developed. A lot of education is needed." Williamson has begun to line up celebrity support -- including actor Michael Moriarity and singer-dancer Gregory Hines -- to promote Free Men.

Krebs thinks males, including feminist men, may rally around the divorce-reform issue. "Men have a lot of anger, particularly around divorce." Success may lie "in the extent the men's movement can deal with and channel this anger."

Whatever path the men's movement takes, its leaders tend to be optimistic, anticipating added impetus from the new national organizations. Though one dark cloud is the gloomy economy. "Wait a minute, we've got to make a living," males may suddenly realize, says Johnson. For men, the movement is "a leisure-time activity" that will drop in priority if the paycheck is threatened.

Still, says Logan, "Maybe this is the men's decade. We see more happening here in the '80s than in the previous 20 years. I'm ready to see much, much more."