An article in yesterday's Style section misidentified Kathy Wilson, former chair of the National Women's Political Caucus. Also, Wilson did not resign from her post in 1985 but decided not to run again when her second term expired.

Some say the message was delivered five years ago, as clear and as penetrating as the January air -- before the Reagan team even moved into the White House.

It came from the inaugural committee in the form of a suggested dress code for the big day, circulated among Ronald Reagan's soon-to-be senior staff: "Gray oxford stroller jacket . . . gray striped trousers . . . gray vest . . . gray striped tie . . . black oxford shoes."

Not a word of counsel to women. "Perhaps they figured we would know how to dress, but I'm telling you, then and there we should have known where we were heading," says one woman -- a former senior White House aide -- who received the memo. "The White House is the ultimate power, and women have to fight like hell to get it. It's almost impossible to rise to it, and for sure, no one is going to give it to you."

"There's very much a barefoot-and-in-the-kitchen mentality in the White House," says Joanna Bistany, a former White House aide, now a vice president at ABC. "Nancy Reagan prefers to deal with men, and that certainly has the effect of setting a pace."

"Many of the people in this White House come out of the financial world," says Linda Chavez, the deputy assistant for public liaison who resigned yesterday to run for the Senate from Maryland, and who generally speaks highly of her former colleagues. "So you're dealing by and large with men unfamiliar with dealing with women."

For a time there, it seemed as if Ronald Reagan was making some headway on the so-called "women's issue." Reagan was, after all, the first president to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court, and the much-ballyhooed gender gap that was to be his downfall in 1984 never did materialize at the polls.

But chief of staff Donald Regan's impolitic remarks before the Geneva summit -- women "are not going to understand throw-weights or what is happening in Afghanistan or what is happening in human rights," he said -- again brought to the surface what insiders and outsiders describe plainly as quiet sexism in the White House.

"They seem to hang onto the men -- like Donovan and Meese -- and give them hugs when they mess up," says Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), a longtime critic of the administration's attitudes toward women. "I can't think of one bad thing Jeane Kirkpatrick or Margaret Heckler did, and yet they are gone."

"Every woman over there should ask for Regan's resignation," says Kathy Smith, a Republican who recently resigned as the chairman of the National Women's Political Caucus. "These guys are a throwback to cave men . . . "

Most of the two dozen or so women and men close to the White House who were interviewed for this article tactfully called Regan's remarks "regrettable." Yet, many of these same people privately refer to the chief of staff and the five men he brought to the White House with him last March as "The Boys Club."

The Regan incident created a high sensitivity level within the White House on the subject of sexism. Regan did not return phone calls on the subject, and many of those interviewed would talk only on condition that their names not be used -- but some also made unsolicited calls to express their views. The White House also provided specially compiled fact sheets comparing female/male ratios among administration appointments with the equivalent ratios in the work place as a whole (the administration comes out behind -- 26 percent to 30 percent -- in "executive, administrative and managerial positions," and ahead -- 80 percent to 77 percent -- in "administrative support and clerical positions").

And one White House spokesman called periodically to ask: "How are we doing so far?"

When it comes to gender politics, of course, Reagan's men aren't much different from the presidential staffs preceding them. The Executive Mansion is notorious as a breeding ground for navy flannel suits.

"I worked in the Nixon White House and there simply were no women in positions of power and influence," says Director of White House Communications Patrick Buchanan, who -- along with former national security adviser Robert McFarlane -- received high marks from White House women for his efforts to advance and hire them. "Now when you come back here, there are a lot more women in positions of influence and authority."

Ask the women who work there and most will agree that there is little overt sexism at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. -- that the White House treats women no worse than corporate America, or the media for that matter. "You have to ask yourself, compared to what?" says Karna Small, deputy assistant to the president for public affairs. "Compared to the corporate world? The answer is no."

But there are problems these women don't often articulate, at least not for the record -- problems much more subtle and gnawing. They range from a series of little frustrations and humiliations, the kind men go crazy over but women keep quiet about for fear of being called shrill, to the fact that it is nearly impossible for a woman to become part of the Reagan inner circle.

Among the small complaints: Up until December, there were no hours scheduled for women in the White House athletic facility. Now, at the insistence of Linda Chavez and another deputy, Deborah Steelman, women can work out one hour a day. Two years ago, former chief of staff James Baker evicted the unisex beauticians installed by Jimmy Carter. Now, there is only the barber, Milton Pitts.

A much more serious problem is access. Last year, Chavez -- one of the most influential White House women -- asked to attend certain Cabinet Council meetings, issue-oriented gatherings of some Cabinet members and staff. According to one source familiar with the incident, Cabinet Secretary Alfred Kingon, an aide brought to the White House by Donald Regan, delayed action on her request. Believing she'd been excluded because of her sex, Chavez wrote a letter to Kingon telling him she was attending whether he liked it or not.

Chavez downplays the matter today. "You can't constantly be looking for slights," she said in an interview. "I am always willing to give the person the benefit of the doubt. I didn't get invited because it was an oversight. If an oversight happens too many times, then you have serious problems."

When deputy assistant Pam Turner was recommended for the job of chief White House liaison to the Senate, there was much resistance. The official seeking her appointment, Ken Duberstein, former head of congressional liaison, told friends that he took "unmitigated grief" from men who thought only a man could talk to U.S. senators.

Turner ultimately got the job; Becky Norton Dunlop was not so fortunate. Dunlop, a respected former deputy assistant for personnel, was passed over for promotion when her boss, John Herrington, left to become energy secretary. The job went to Robert Tuttle, one of Dunlop's former subordinates, who is the son of Reagan intimate Holmes Tuttle.

"There's a tendency on the part of some people to view women in high positions as being interested in some issues more than others," said Jim Cicconi, a former aide to James Baker, who is now in private law practice. "That's something the White House has to overcome. It's no accident that women are always appointed to the public liaison job." The Office of Public Liaison is not considered a major policy-making force; charged with improving White House relations with women, minorities and religious groups, it is often dismissed as something of a hand-holding operation.

Even Karna Small, who feels that she has been treated well since she joined the Reagan team, admits that women are treated differently -- for better or worse.

"I remember before I came to the NSC (National Security Council), always fighting the idea that they would have periodic briefings exclusively for women appointees. I said, 'No, you don't understand. Women want to be part of the team, not separated. They want to be known for their expertise.'

"I said, 'What are you going to do? Have a briefing just on abortion issues and family tax plans and serve tea and crumpets?' "

Opinion seems divided on whether White House women were better off before Donald Regan and James Baker switched jobs in March 1985.

"There is now an old-fashioned chauvinism here indicative of the board-room mentality," said one midlevel male, referring to Regan's corporate career at Merrill Lynch. "People who come from Wall Street are from a culture where women don't have a role, or have a token role, like one woman on a board."

Others close to the White House say things were little different under Baker. But there is one added thorn, they'll tell you: The new corporate-style "pyramid" structure Regan has designed, with himself at the pinnacle, seems to work against the advancement of women.

Particularly when the famous triumvirate ruled -- Baker, Edwin Meese, Michael Deaver -- women like Baker assistant and adviser Margaret Tutwiler could at least come within striking distance of the Oval Office, by virtue of assisting these men. But Regan has surrounded himself with men down the pyramid.

Also, under Regan there are fewer "assistants to the president" -- the highest ranking staff job -- and none who are women. The title, among other things, guarantees admission to the critical, morning senior staff meetings. After last April, when Regan downgraded the top job in the Office of Public Liaison from "assistant" to "deputy," there were no women in the meetings. "He didn't downgrade the position because a woman held the job," says White House Deputy Assistant for Administration Christopher Hicks, one of those Regan brought with him to the White House.

It was only after a rather critical story in The Wall Street Journal last September that Linda Chavez became the one female invited to the meeting. The earlier departure of Faith Ryan Whittlesey, director for public liaison, had left the top-level meeting without a woman in attendance for the first time since 1977.

"It's true that I was invited that week," says Chavez. "But it is also true that prior to the August trip to California, I had put in a request to go and I was told it was being considered."

Not surprisingly, women who have left the administration talk more freely about their working lives.

Joanna Bistany was one of those White House women who had power without portfolio. She carried the lowest commission, special assistant to president, but as chief assistant to former White House communications chief David Gergen, she controlled the flow of people and paper into his office. Still, that didn't keep her from being seen as a secretary sometimes.

"One night we were working quite late, and there was a crisis in the Mideast," she recalls. "Dave and I were frantically trying to pull a statement together, when Al Haig came flying in and said to me, 'Here! Type this quick.'

"Fortunately, Dave reacted very quickly -- I must say he is gender blind -- and said to Haig, 'We'll have our secretary do it."

But Bistany echoes other former female aides and top officials who say that blatant chauvinism was not their primary complaint. Women, she says, simply have a hard time advancing to power positions in the White House, and an even harder time keeping the momentum once they do.

"It's just very hard to get ahead there for a woman," she says. "It's pretty subtle but you just know it. There's a tendency for them not to take you quite as seriously. Before I left I had a heart-to-heart with some of the people there and they told me, in a fairly honest way, that it would be damn hard for me to advance beyond where I was."

"If you happened to have a mentor," says Judy Buckalew, who worked for Faith Ryan Whittlesey as a deputy in the public liaison office, "you would be able to participate in top policy-making sessions -- (but) only because you were given access because of a male." "That was the case with Jim Baker and Margaret Tutwiler and Bud McFarlane and Karna Small. Those women were in high-powered meetings because those men allowed them to be there."

Buckalew, now vice president for government relations of the International Association of Financial Planners, also describes a "queen bee syndrome" among those women who do manage to break the barriers. "You not only had to fight your way through the male bodies," she says, but "when the women got some semblance of power, you had to fight them too. Margaret (Tutwiler) had a classic queen bee syndrome. She would not let another talented woman near Jim Baker."

Tutwiler, who followed Baker to the Treasury Department, declined to be interviewed because she doesn't work at the White House any more.

The three most prominent women to leave the administration have been former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Anne Burford, former U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and former HHS secretary Margaret Heckler. Heckler did not return phone calls for this story, but Kirkpatrick and Burford are outspoken in their opinion of White House attitudes.

Kirkpatrick is considered the only woman to achieve insider status in the Reagan administration, but when her name came up as a possible candidate for national security adviser, White House aides told reporters that the ambassador was too "temperamental" for the job. Soon afterward, Kirkpatrick began to lash back publicly, saying "sexism is alive" in the Reagan administration.

"The two most-used words to describe women are temperamental and unstable," she explained in a recent interview. "Both words have been used against me. I pointed out that my life history did not seem to support these charges. I have been married to one person 31 years, and I have had one job at Georgetown most of that time. I even lived in one house, and my children have gone to one school. That is hardly the life of an unstable person."

Her experience was not unique, she says. "A good many women have a lot of trouble with this administration. When Liddy Dole was in the White House (Dole was another woman who held the public liaison job), the rumors flew fast about the dissatisfaction with the job she was doing. And when Faith Whittlesey took that job, the rumors flew fast again. Anne Burford got a raw deal: She took the positions they asked her to, and then was left on a limb. And I found the Margaret Heckler situation dismaying . . . "

Kirkpatrick also talks of "weird" leaks that came out of the administration around the time of her departure.

"There were a lot of stories indicating I was an ambitious job seeker. I never sought a job in my life. I never asked for a job. I never talked to the president about other jobs. I do think that is what they do to women."

Burford, still bitter about being forced to resign in 1983 from the scandal-plagued EPA, said in an interview that the "administration cannot deal with strong women."

Jim Baker, she says, "is the all-time biggest chauvinist I have ever encountered in my professional life . . . I voiced concern with him once over an executive privilege order, and he said, 'Now Anne, are you going to be a prima donna over this?' I had to sit down . . . They call him assertive. They call me bitchy.

"If I were a man, they would have never put me out on a limb and then sawed me off," says Burford, who addresses the sexism issue in her book, "Are You Tough Enough?" "I do think I would have been a lot better off if I weighed 200 pounds, looked like Ma Kettle and wore Army boots. I wore purple silk dresses and I'm sure that threw them off."

Whittlesey, now U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, also left the administration under duress. But her sex, she believes, was only part of the reason she had trouble.

"They certainly leaked about me," she says, "and I thought it was a combination of sexism and ideology. It's hard to distinguish completely -- but you have to look at the leaks about the men too -- Meese, Clark, Buchanan . . . I think that in any group of men today, there are going to be strains when a single woman enters what otherwise is an exclusively male preserve."

Will there ever be a White House that is not a male preserve? Before, that is, the first woman president takes up residence there? The history of the Carter staff, as well as that of Reagan's, suggests the day may not come soon.

The Carter administration offered, at least at first glance, a more laid-back and collegial environment; the casual demeanor of Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell was seen as a metaphor for a liberal philosophy. But while Carter was quick to name a woman -- Midge Costanza, yet another public liaison chief -- to a senior White House position, the Carter White House's record on appointments was at best average. In fact, according to figures compiled by the Office of Personnel Management, the Reagan administration (in its first four years) had a slightly higher percentage -- 64 as opposed to 61 percent -- of female political appointees. And soon after her appointment, Costanza found herself banished to a basement office because the Georgians found her aggressive personality offensive.

Costanza left and was replaced by Anne Wexler, a savvy, no-nonsense political operative who is often cited as one of the first women given entree to a White House inner circle. "Well, it depends how tight you drew the circle," says Jody Powell, Carter's former spokesman. "If it was three or four -- no. But if it was five or six -- yes, Anne was absolutely there.

The White House, Powell adds, "is tougher for women to crack because of the personal-staff nature of the place . . . The president surrounds himself with people he has known and worked with for a while. That in itself limits an entry by an outsider in any case. And it makes it a lot tougher on women."

For some, the cachet of working for the president outweighs any problems they might encounter. Others don't see any downside at all.

"I have been here from the beginning, and I have felt very much a part of the team," says Paula Dobriansky, who at 30 is the director of European and Soviet Affairs at the National Security Council. "The doors have been opened, and I know my advice has been taken seriously and heard."

"I'm a complainer by nature," says Elizabeth Board, a special assistant to the president who left NBC a little over a year ago to direct the White House television office under Buchanan. "And I have never had a better boss -- or better work . . . I have gotten more respect here than I have ever had . . . And I really am very sensitive to that."

Among those less completely satisfied with their lot, there is a conviction that over time, as more women enter politics, things will change. And indeed, one can hardly imagine a female White House aide saying in 20 years, "I just feel so protected by all those men" -- as one did for this story. Or a male aide answering a question about one of his colleagues with "Gosh, I just don't know many of those girls over there."

In the meantime, no women with thin skins need apply.

"I came here after having been visible and after having a reputation of being fairly hard-nosed and down to business," says Linda Chavez, "and I think the reputation that I was not a shrinking violet has probably stood me well here. In a sense, maybe women need that reputation more than men do because they have the opposite assumption to work against . . . Some of it has to do with the nature of working your way up. Women are more recent entries to the world of politics . . .

"But you're seeing a lot more now, and the more you see, the more the men in power will get used to working with women. It's just going to take time. That's all there is to it."