The question is incorrect. Like a heresy uttered in a cathedral or a wolf whistle at a NOW convention, it creates a cool cavern of wary silence.

You couldn't help noticing, you say to Judy Chicago, that in her entire "The Birth Project" -- 100 tapestries and quilts designed by Chicago and stitched by 150 women to represent the "birth process as a metaphor for creation" -- there are no men.

Women by the yard, yes. Women giving birth, babies, breasts, eggs in every configuration, but not a man in sight. Not even a sperm! What about husbands in the delivery room, shared parenting, coed Lamaze? What about men?

"Well, what about men?" Judy Chicago snorts, her graying mop of corkscrew curls shaking with exasperation, her compact frame coiled in a hotel room chair, anklets bobbing, toes tapping. "I mean really! Give me a break! I wasn't talking about men! What egomania!" She lowers her voice to an alto whine, the sound of some guy asking about dinner or the whereabouts of his socks: "What about me? What do you mean you left me out? Put me in there! How dare you leave me out!"

She stops, sighs, nurses her glass of California white: "Has anybody ever commented that in the Sistine Chapel there is not one woman to be found? Not one woman. The entire wall is all men. And then on the top, of course," she says, "there's God reaching out his finger and making . . . a male person! There's not one woman and nobody ever comments that we're left out! I mean Gaaahhhd! Gimme a break!"

Actually, there are women in the Sistine Chapel -- Eve, for one.

Judy Chicago, artist, feminist, Joan of Art in the battle of the sexes, creator of the controversial "The Dinner Party," on a recent visit to champion her latest work. "The Birth Project," five years in gestation, opened here yesterday at five exhibition spaces, part of a national tour that includes 13 cities from Juneau, Alaska, to New York. (Twenty-one of the 100 works will be on view here this month at the Wallace Wentworth Gallery, two offices of the Women's National Bank, the Martin Luther King Library and the Maryland College of Art and Design.)

Portrait of the artist at 45: tanned, tired face, dressed in black shirt and violet jeans, striding smartly down the lemon-scented halls of the Jefferson Hotel. Wire-rimmed aviator glasses, flowers in her hair. Northern California earth mother, brassy and a little bossy, a woman who is accustomed to being told no and going ahead anyway.

"Oh my God, people have said ridiculous things," she says, wiggling eyebrows that have been tweezed to crescents of permanent surprise. "When I was 21, people actually told me you couldn't be an artist and a woman, too. What was I supposed to do, have an operation ?

"Last year in Art in America magazine , here I am a classically trained artist, I've gone to art school since I was 5 years old, I can draw anything, right? And this jerk in Art in America writes, 'She doesn't have the right to call herself an artist.' I called up my gallery and I said, 'Guess what? I'm not an artist.' I mean, you can't imagine the stupid things people say! Really, people have a lot of nerve, you know?"

Born Judy Cohen in a lower-middle-class neighborhood of Chicago, she changed her name in 1969 to "assert my independence." Her father was a union organizer, her mother a secretary. She is twice divorced and childless. She trained at UCLA in the '60s, founded a women's art gallery and moved from minimalist sculpture toward the images of female genitalia and radical feminism that made her famous or infamous, depending on your point of view.

She chose the name Chicago because of her accent. She lives in a sparsely furnished stucco bungalow in Benicia, Calif., north of San Francisco. Her studio is a refurbished blacksmith's shop. "I'm very fussy about my studio. Someone said to me the other day you could eat off the floor it's so clean. By the end of 'The Dinner Party,' it was very dirty and it used to drive me crazy."

There is a small permanent staff there, and a changing cast of acolytes who come and go. The place has gotten so busy she's building a second studio in Santa Fe, N.M., Georgia O'Keeffe country, where she can work alone.

In "The Dinner Party," her best known and most controversial work, a huge triangular table was set with ceramic plates, symbols of women in western history. Thirty-nine women, including Georgia O'Keeffe, Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson, were represented. There were 999 more women represented by the porcelain tiles on the exhibit's floor.

Unlike O'Keeffe's flower paintings, in which critics have found suggestions of female genitalia, Chicago's plates were unabashedly explicit -- membranous designs in bright, sometimes lurid colors. By the time "The Dinner Party" arrived at the Brooklyn Museum in 1980, it had created an uproar.

Mainstream critics dismissed the work as agitprop, and unesthetic at that: ". . . her plates," wrote a critic in The New York Review of Books, "are comparable in style and organic form to those ornate psychedelic candles that used to be the rage of Village headshops."

"Simple, didactic, portentous . . . and wholly free of wit or irony," declared Time magazine. Another critic called Chicago's vision of history "about as objective as entries in 'The Great Soviet Encyclopedia.' "

A rival artist who called herself "Maria Manhattan" parodied the show in a work called "The Box Lunch" set up at a nearby gallery, featuring, among others, Amy Carter, Pat Nixon, Evita Peron and Judy Chicago.

But before it had been disassembled and warehoused (no museum wanted it), more than 500,000 women had seen "The Dinner Party." Some wept, many more thanked her.

This time, supporters have taken out second mortgages to raise enough money to get "The Birth Project" finished and on the road. But in Washington as elsewhere, no major museum would agree to show the entire work.

The Corcoran Gallery of Art rejected the show, although Gallery Director Michael Botwinick brought "The Dinner Party" to the Brooklyn Museum when he was director there.

"We could not arrive at a consensus for doing it," Botwinick says. "The debate that always surrounds Judy is the extent to which she is a mainstream painter, with a capital P."

Chicago says the debate itself is proof of her theory that women and birth are "the last taboo. If we lived in a world where we were used to women telling the truth," she says, "there would not be a lot of social significance to my work."

Judy Chicago watched her first delivery when she was 40. "It was awful," she says. "I went home and just cried." She began searching for images of birth in western art. "I was amazed. There were no images. Almost nothing.

"You have to understand that it wasn't until about 50 years ago you could say the word 'pregnant' in nice company. There have been periods where women could not go out of the house if their pregnancy showed. And have you seen the clothes?" she says. "Tents with bow ties. I mean, really. This is woman at her most creative and her most powerful. What are we hiding? What are people afraid of?"

She can't understand why men and women can stomach images of gore and war, examine glossy pages of explicit pornography, but call for smelling salts when they see photographs of women giving birth.

"So what I envisioned was 100 pieces that would go to 100 places and be seen by 100 people. I thought, well, that's a million."

Hundreds of volunteer needleworkers answered her advertisements. One hundred fifty were chosen and were sent her designs. Embroidery frames were constructed, instructions relayed. Her phone bill was $1,000 a month.

"I woke up this morning feeling trapped, as if I'd started something I'll be sorry about," she wrote in her diary. "I feel fundamentally let down by the men, fundamentally let down by the way they've treated me throughout my career . . . and so I've turned full face to women, but I'm filled with fear and anxiety and doubt. It is my own lack of trust of women that I am confronting and my own dislike of women that I am encountering."

She crisscrossed the country to supervise the work. There was a lot of ripping it out and doing it over -- what Chicago refers to as "reverse stitching."

"I had a problem with Judy's response to 'things going wrong,' " one woman wrote in the book that documents the project. "She yelled a lot."

"Volatile?" Chicago says, voice climbing, swiveling her chair. "I'm a creative person, you know? A lot of creative people are volatile. I'm Jewish and I come from an expressive family and everybody screams and yells and talks at the same time. Why shouldn't I lose my temper? A lot of people drive me crazy, you know?"

"The Birth Project" is $100,000 in debt, and Chicago is busy attending fundraisers to help pay the banks. In Washington, a party was held at the old Hirshhorn mansion in Kalorama, now owned by an investment banker and his wife. The crowd was a mix of couture-clad culturati, feminists, fops, bankers and artists. The waiters were in black tie.

In her black trousers, black heels and a simple silk top, Chicago looked a little like a waiter herself. She took the slide projector control. The lights went out, people settled into the thick Persian carpet to watch as slides flashed on the screen.

"The Birth Tear" appeared, the image of a woman rent from clavicle to crotch, in agony as she attempts to deliver a child. It is stitched in reds and is meant to show the violence of birth. In "Smocked Figure," a pregnant woman weeps, a symbol, Chicago explained, for the confinement of pregnancy, the ambivalence women feel about it.

"Oh, I love that piece," whispered one woman, a practicing midwife affiliated with Georgetown University. "That's just what it looks like," she said later as a slide of a work called "The Crowning" appears, the picture of the top of an infant's head just before it emerges from its mother's body.

"This is about nurturing and about being strangled by the very fact that we are able to nurture," Chicago said of a piece called "Swaddled Figure."

Just as Chicago and her helpers researched the history of birth, so did they research needlework, unearthing long-forgotten stitches and techniques. Chicago developed a political theory about needlework and women, which, along with information about birth practices in rural Egypt and India, is presented, with footnotes, in the 231-page "Birth Project" book.

"Where women once designed these great paintings and tapestries, now they're decorating lamps and pillows," she said to the audience, and went on to assert that needlework and design were wrested away from women by male guilds in the Middle Ages.

"So instead of becoming the expression of women's being, needlework begins to be more and more oppression, it is used to teach little girls patience, to think small, to concentrate on small things," she said. "So what was once a female craft of great dignity has become depreciated. Instead of being used to express our feelings, it's being used to oppress us. Thirty million women are buying these kits of teddy bears and sunflowers."

The crowd was overwhelmingly supportive, but there were occasional murmurs of dissent. "It seems a little obsessive, a little extreme," one gray-haired sculptor said carefully. "You don't want to ignore birth, certainly, but isn't there something in between?"

Chicago reads the reactions to her designs as a barometer of sexism. In other words, if you're not part of the fan club, you're part of the problem. "Almost without exception, people come back and say, 'You know, I started thinking about why I got so horrified by something so natural,' and in the end they get really fascinated. It clicks for them that there's something wrong with that response."

She is long on vision, but sometimes short on consistency. "The Birth Project" celebrates primitive Egyptian birth altars on one page and deplores unsanitary birth practices in rural India the next. She praises modern obstetrics for liberating women from the threat of death in childbirth in one breath, and excoriates it the next for isolating birthing women from family and friends. A pioneer of the women's art galleries that cropped up in the '60s and '70s, she now sees those spaces as ghettos for women artists.

Finally, she celebrates birth, but has declined to participate.

She believes it will be impossible for a woman to be an artist and a mother until men assume an equal share of child care. Nannies and day care do not seem to inhabit her theoretical universe.

"Women like to play 'let's pretend that we're really equal,' that the battle is over. But what happened working with the women on the project is they were plummeted into such levels of feeling guilty, feeling torn. If they went into the studio, they felt like they were abandoning their children, if they stayed with the child they felt like they were abandoning themselves creatively, they didn't have a moment's peace, you know? And men may help out with child raising, but they still don't share it . . . They help, but they don't worry."

Only once did she seriously consider having a child. "I had these romantic fantasies toward the end of 'The Dinner Party.' I thought well, okay, now I had this fantasy that I'd get pregnant and I would be about to deliver the moment the dinner party opened, thus ending the speculation about whether you can be a woman and an artist, too.

"My assistant said to me, 'You'd better not have a baby because what will happen is after six months you'll want to go back into the studio and I will have to take care of the baby, and I am not going to do that.' Well," Chicago says, "that was the end of that. I lost interest."

She says she doesn't read every review, but when she talks about how "The Birth Project" will be received, she sounds like a mother watching her baby toddle off to kindergarten. "You open yourself up when you put an image out into the world. Some people like it, some people deny it. That's all fine. People have a right to their reactions, I would never want to control that, that's just fine."

She laughs and her eyes get wide. "What do you mean you don't like it?" she shrieks. Deep breath. "No. I mean, that's just fine. Really."