Before NOW was now, and before abortion rights propelled people to march on the Supreme Court, and before the ERA became a litmus test for political survival, people like Catherine East were working on the framework for the contemporary women's rights movement. Today she is to be honored for that work by the Women's Equity Action League.

In 1966, East, a staff member of the federal Citizens' Advisory Council on the Status of Women, persuaded Betty Friedan to start the National Organization for Women.

Yesterday, at her home in Arlington, East described a meeting with Richard Graham, a Republican on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "He said the EEOC would not take sex discrimination seriously until we had a group like the NAACP. All I thought was 'who is going to do this?' Betty was working on a book on employment. I had given her some names to call in government. And we hit it off and had dinner when she came to town. Betty was the only woman at that time who had name recognition. But Betty said, 'I am not an organization person, I am a writer, I don't like organizations.' A few months later, at a conference in Washington, Friedan talked to several women over lunch, tested the idea, came up with the name, and set the founding meeting for October 1966."

East didn't attend either of the founding meetings--she recalled that her supervisors at the Labor Department disapproved of the new group--and she didn't join any of the women's groups until 1971 when Alice Paul, author of the original Equal Rights Amendment Bill introduced in Congress in 1923, sent her a membership card for the National Women's Party as thanks for a check for tea and cookies at meetings.

But for persistent prompting and work, East is to receive the Elizabeth Boyer Award from the Women's Equity Action League at a luncheon today.

East, 66, not only represents the invisible heroines in the women's rights movement, but is an example of the anonymous government staffer who compiles statistics, analyzes legislative needs and prepares the agenda for the public spokesman.

"I liked doing the research, writing the papers and having influence on what was done. I never wanted publicity," said East yesterday. "There are many other people who work the same way, whose influence is of that kind--the career people, who know how the government works. Having worked at Civil Service, I could pick up the phone and call somebody and find out with one call who the expert was in that field. People who are in public positions need these people because they can't have all the background."

After 38 years in government, working up from a clerk at the old Civil Service Commission to deputy coordinator for the National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year, she retired in 1977.

Her brick split-level home--with a sea-green and beige living room, a madonna on the mantel and a dining room table that holds a mound of papers--is a "home away from home for wandering feminists." Eventually new strategy and a history of presidential women's commissions since the one Kennedy established in 1962 will come out of this serene busyness.

She is divorced. Her two daughters are grown, and enjoying the results of their mother's efforts: one is the gymnastic coach at Cornell University, for both the women's and men's teams, and the other shares a clinical psychology practice with her husband in Seattle.

East is a walking archive, dressed in sturdy navy shoes, a navy straight skirt and soft rose blouse. And she has not rested. She is the vice chair of the Virginia Women's Political Caucus, a member of the board of directors of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, and was the women's issues coordinator for the John Anderson presidential campaign in 1980--a job that made her renew smoking after a 20-year abstinence.

While other people may look at the women's movement as a finished building, she remembers building it brick by brick: who was at the meetings and what they said, how it added up.

For example, she heard newspaper reporter Vera Glaser question President Nixon about appointing women to office.

"I thought 'here's a woman after my own heart.' The women's movement did not receive any serious publicity then, most of the publicity was patronizing, trivialized. I sent her a package of material. Then she wrote five articles."

It turned out "she also knew Arthur Burns, then counselor to the president, and he was in charge of setting up task forces to establish the legislative programs for the 1970s. We went to see him, and as a result, one on women's rights was set up."

Since East has seen it built up from next to nothing, she doesn't worry when skeptics see cracks in the huge edifice the women's movement has become.

"The gender gap is the most tangible evidence of a continuing movement. Among young women we have more working for the ERA, taking leave from their jobs and schools. There are now more women in state legislatures--13.2 percent . . . "

She's still archiving, gathering the facts, a bureaucrat for the movement after all these years.