Over the next four days, 500 or more visitors to a conference here will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the National Women's Conference in Houston -- the first and probably the last federally funded women's convention in U.S. history. But many of the most powerful and politically important women in the country won't be here.

They will be in San Diego at a different meeting, one that could barely have been conceived of 10 years ago. There, at a forum sponsored by the Center for the American Woman and Politics, about 450 women state legislators will meet with activists, political consultants, businesswomen, federal and state officials and U.S. congresswomen to discuss subjects ranging from redistricting to insurance equity, from state energy policies in the 21st century to the politics of welfare reform -- and to plan their roles in the next presidential election.

Women activists describe the coincidence in meetings as a simple matter of bad timing. But no contrast devised on purpose could better illustrate the transformation of the women's movement over the past 10 years -- a sea change in the character of the movement, its means and even its immediate ends.

These years have seen four major changes in the women's movement: a far greater, more sophisticated investment in traditional electoral politics; a focus on the state and local, rather than the federal, political levels; a decentralization of the movement itself, shown by a booming growth in grass-roots organizations knit together in formal networks; and, finally, a shift in immediate priorities, away from some of the divisive early battles that brought fierce counterattacks from conservatives, and toward the so-called "family" issues and the bread-and-butter economic issues that dominate women's lives.

There remains debate about whether all of these new directions are positive. The National Organization for Women, most notably, quarrels with what its president, Molly Yard, perceives as the "terrible mistake" of postponing renewed action on the Equal Rights Amendment, which in 1982 fell three states short of ratification.

And most women activists, here and around the country, preface and close their remarks with the observation that women have a long way to go in both the political and the economic spheres. Nonetheless, they speak in new, meliorist tones about progress. They speak of "viability" and "marketing our solutions"; of political maturity and the lessons of compromise.

"It is a movement in transition, and it is a quiet transition," says Celinda Lake, director of candidate services at the Women's Campaign Fund. "It may appear more pragmatic, but it is certainly no more moderate."

"It's still the same movement, with fundamentally the same goals of relieving women of the historic burden of sex discrimination, and especially the economic burden of women and their families," says Judy Goldsmith, a former NOW president who is now communications director for the National Center for Policy Alternatives.

"There is after all nothing more radical than economic change," she adds. "You may wear a pin-striped, skirted suit while you are doing this, but you are touching at the heart of the economic system when you say that women can't be discriminated against economically."

The Decision to Act "Ten years ago," says Bella Abzug, "it was still possible to question what we were doing and why we were doing it. Today, nobody questions."

A gradual revolution in social attitudes and in the work force form the background against which the women's movement has changed and grown in the 10 years since Nov. 19, 1977, when the National Women's Conference convened in Houston. Born of a bill sponsored by then-representative Abzug (D-N.Y.) to observe International Women's Year, it was funded by Congress with an appropriation of $5 million. It brought together 2,005 delegates, most chosen from among 130,000 participants at the state level, to vote on the 26-point National Plan of Action that addressed almost every conceivable issue of concern to women, beginning with "Arts" and ending with "Welfare." More than 12,000 women went to Houston simply to watch.

Passages of its "Official Report to the President, the Congress and the People of the United States" seem chunks of historical amber: "One of the most heroic delegates was Judy McCarthey of Arizona, an Indian from the White Mountain tribe and a student at Arizona State University, who insisted on coming even though her labor pains had started. She stayed through the Conference and managed to get home before the birth of a daughter whom she named Era, in honor of the Equal Rights Amendment."

But if elements of the Houston conference now seem almost quaint, it served a purpose that women today -- even those who will spend this weekend in San Diego instead of Washington -- believe was important.

"It was a delegated conference in which women brought their hearts and their souls and their tears and their fears and their hopes and their aspirations," says Abzug. "It was an outlet, a recognition that women's status had changed and that it had to be formalized."

Almost 15 years after Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" had heralded the contemporary women's movement by identifying the unhappiness of ordinary women -- "the problem that has no name" -- the women who gathered in Houston not only named but also anatomized the problem in a forum that first defined it as a mainstream concern.

The women in Houston also defied the national press, which predicted a cat fight, and conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, who had predicted that the conference would sound "the death knell of the women's movement" and who led a counterconference across town. Finally, in passing a plank supporting gay rights legislation, the convention bound up one of the largest wounds of its early years -- the sharp division over whether the movement could or should embrace the cause of lesbian women.

Although the 10th-anniversary Spirit of Houston conference that begins here this morning at the Sheraton-Washington Hotel is billed as a chance to reassess the agenda set in Houston, it has, more than anything else, the feel of a retrospective.

"Any movement of social change goes through periods," says Marcia Cohen, author of "The Sisterhood," a forthcoming book on the early years of the contemporary women's movement. "The ideas of feminism are no longer shocking; the country knows what they are. You're not going to reveal anything remarkable at a conference. That's what happened early in the movement, and it's important -- in fact, without it, it's impossible. But having done it once, twice, a couple of hundred times, that's no longer what's needed."

The Strength of Numbers What's needed, say women again and again, is "critical mass."

"You have to achieve a kind of critical mass of women in office to ensure that the public agenda reflects women's concerns," says Ann F. Lewis, who chairs the Democratic Task Force of the National Women's Political Caucus. "Almost first, second and third on their agenda when I talk to women around the country is getting themselves and other women on the ticket."

Irene Natividad, chair of the National Women's Political Caucus, points proudly to the fact that women have increased their numbers in state legislatures since 1977, from 696 to 1,173; 15.5 percent of legislators now are women. "That's not bad for 10 years," she says, adding that women are the mayors of 96 large cities, compared with 47 in 1977.

By 1985, women who held leadership positions in state legislatures -- "a group that a few years ago could have met in a phone booth," according to Goldsmith -- numbered 89. The number of women in Congress has increased by only six since 1977, to 25; and there are only three women governors. But activists took heart at the number of women who ran for statewide offices in 1986: Nine women were nominated for governor, six for the U.S. Senate and 53 for the House of Representatives. And there were 50 female candidates in the general election for statewide offices such as lieutenant governor and secretary of state.

The answer to the slow pace of change in higher level offices, Natividad and others believe, is to persuade young women to step on the bottom rung of the same traditional ladder long climbed by men. The Women's Campaign Fund, for example, gives about 40 percent of its money to nonfederal races -- unusual for a Washington-based political action committee.

Natividad speaks of a movement "from politics as a mission to politics as a career." She cites officials such as incoming Louisiana state treasurer Mary L. Landrieu; Debra Rae Anderson, the speaker of the House in South Dakota, and Mabel Thomas, a black legislator in Georgia -- all of whom were elected to the legislature in their twenties -- as a new generation on the way up, cheerfully describing them as "very cold-blooded."

"The other revolution out there, if you will, is the increase in the number of women political operatives," says Lake of the Women's Campaign Fund, referring to a large and growing web of political action committees, fund-raising organizations, pollsters, consultants who specialize in the women's vote or in women candidates, and women who manage others' campaigns -- including those of men.

Although the money gap between incumbents and challengers will continue to hurt women -- who are disproportionately challengers -- for some time to come, women are making large strides in fund-raising, too. Women are starting their own political action committees in large numbers, and organizations like the Women's Campaign Fund have learned to tap women who are rising in the corporate world, as well as traditional sources like business and labor PACs.

Ellen Malcolm, who heads a Democratic "donor network" called EMILY's List (an acronym for Early Money Is Like Yeast), says that "10 years ago, women weren't as involved in politics; they were involved in issues. Women had to learn, first, that we had to be in it. Then we had to learn that women candidates needed money. Then we had to learn to write big checks. Now we've learned to take control of our financial resources, and to put them where they'll do some good."

The final element of what Lake calls "this quiet politicization of women" is their increasing power as voters, a major focus since 1982, when 25 women's organizations formed the Women's Vote Project. In 1980, women had voted at the same rate as men for the first time since they won the vote in 1920; because women outnumber men, this meant that 6 million more women than men voted. And by 1986, the rate of voting among women (61 percent) outstripped that of men (59 percent). While women by no means vote automatically for women, activists say the discovery of the so-called "gender gap" indicates that women's power in the voting booth can be mobilized to make politicians of both genders and parties address issues of concern to women.

"I'm rather proud of women, actually," says NWPC's Natividad. "They've gotten so sophisticated in the midst of adversity."

That sophistication is in part a legacy of the battle for the Equal Rights Amendment. "A lot of the women got their early training working on the ERA," says Lake. "It was kind of the original grass-roots campaign. I also think it really gave the women's movement a feel for how critical holding power is. Access to power is not enough. Because no one will give you equality; you have to take it."

Changing Directions The failure of the amendment -- halfway through this last decade -- was the high-water mark of the movement's transformation in more ways than one. Most women's activists still identify passage of a constitutional amendment as a major task for the movement, but, aware of the drain it would be on political resources, they believe that other issues take precedence. "ERA is reintroduced every year," says Michele Lord, executive director of the Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues, "but there's no movement on it; there's no intention to move on it."

"If the personal is political," says Natividad, "the pocketbook is the number one issue for most women, whether for themselves or their families."

Thus the constellation of issues now described as crucial to the movement includes pay equity, employment opportunity, health care, continued vigilance in such areas as credit, insurance and pension rights; and, perhaps above all, solutions to the problems of women who must work and who also still have primary responsibility for child care. All of these issues come together in the so-called "feminization of poverty" -- the disproportionate presence of women, especially single heads of household, among the poor.

Here at last, feminist leaders suggest, is the missing link: the set of "bridging" issues that might unite the poor and lower-middle-class women hardest hit by economic inequities with the white middle-class yuppie superwomen who have long been the movement's theorists.

There is also an element of sheer political savvy here: advocates have learned the basic political wisdom of shaping their agenda to women's concerns rather than trying to raise women's consciousness to match the agenda. Many feminists thus recast some of their traditional concerns -- discrimination in education, for example, and even abortion -- as economic issues.

Abortion rights and family planning remain top priorities -- in the sense of holding the line against Reagan administration efforts to chip away at federal family planning funds and mobilizing to defeat antiabortion referendums in four states in 1986. But while all women activists speak of continued dedication to existing rights, few are game for a fight on the federal level to expand either rights or funding.

In Lord's words, "What {women's groups} have realized is, with limited resources, what do you actually work on?"

The Power Network Talk like this infuriates NOW's Molly Yard, who says, "I think they are absolutely wrong. {ERA} is the catalyst for the women's movement ... It galvanizes women in a way that almost nothing else does.

"I find there's something crazy about this whole emphasis on family issues ... I mean, we've always been for child care. We've always been for equal pay. I think family issues have always been important to us ... There's now a myth about how women are finding it so hard to work and have a family. Well, who ever said it was going to be easy? I guess it used to be easier to get child care, because it was easier to find housekeepers; I mean, I think it's very hard, but nobody ever pretended it was going to be easy. So what if someone's on a career ladder and wants to have two or three children? If she has to take time off, so what's the matter with that?"

Some feminists suggest that Yard's objections are less indicative of contention within the movement than of a diminishing role for NOW, which has long been perceived as the premier organization for the advancement of women's rights.

"NOW just isn't representative of the women's movement," says Lord, who like other women describes a burgeoning network of new groups -- or older groups with new roles. "Because NOW has lagged behind, it has allowed a very diverse range of women's groups to come to the forefront."

"If you are looking at the women's movement to look like it looked 10 years ago, or if you are only looking at NOW, you're looking in the wrong place," says Friedan, a founder of the 21-year-old organization.

The places to look, activists suggest, are among local groups and among national organizations as established as the Association of Junior Leagues, the National Council of Jewish Women, the American Nurses' Association, the National Black Women's Agenda and the Children's Defense Fund.

The true measure of the great changes wrought by the women's movement, some believe, is the mobilization of such large mainstream groups as the League of Women Voters, the American Association of University Women and the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs. These and others have carved out new roles as "brokers," in the word of AAUW President Sarah Harder, promoting "advocacy networks" made up of dozens of smaller groups.

"We have become much more direct actors in this 10-year period," says Harder of the 106-year-old organization, which has helped form networks in 27 states. "I think partly because of our age and reputation for moderation within the women's movement, we've become an important catalyst to organizations working together. And that's really the key in these 10 years since the National Conference on Women."

Bringing It Home Or half the key: The other half is a nearly total shift in focus from the national to the state and local levels.

This is a change that goes far beyond the strategy of getting women elected at the state level. Women are discovering that states are more receptive laboratories for change -- and that they have no choice in an age when the Reagan administration's "new federalism" has thrust the initiative for social services back to the states.

"What the Reagan administration did for us was to force us to shift, of necessity, to pragmatism," says Harder tartly. "We knew there was no chance we were going to get a national agenda, so we were forced to move our attentions to the states."

This is borne out in some states' faster action on issues stressed by women's groups. At least 26 states are conducting "comparable worth" reviews of state employes' salaries; another 20 have taken some sort of action to bring pay for jobs traditionally staffed by women into line with those of men. According to Lord, at least 26 states are considering bills for family and medical leave.

There is some evidence, according to Natividad, Lewis and Lord, that this legislative activity is in part the fruit of women's election to office. "It's been these women legislators who said they were tired of waiting for us, and have gone ahead on their own," says Lord.

"The two worlds" -- of women in politics and women working for advocacy groups -- "are very much interconnected," says Natividad. "One propelled the other, and still does. Without organizations clamoring about equity and equal representation, there's no organized sense of urgency."

The Reach, the Grasp

If there are any seeds here for the sort of bitterness and recrimination that have plagued the women's movement in the past, they lie in the prevalence of words like "pragmatism" and "compromise."

At one end of the spectrum is Harder, who says, "To make consensus, you have to be willing to compromise. And 'compromise' does not mean 'sell out'; it is not a dirty word. It means we have learned to distinguish between our ideals, which may take 100 years or more to happen; our goals, which may happen in our lifetime; and achievable goals."

At the other end is Yard, who thinks pragmatism has led political strategists to proceed with too much caution. "We're not making it this way," she says bluntly of the rate of electoral change. "It's too slow ... At {this} rate, we'll be here for 75 years before we get a chance to ratify the ERA."

In the middle are many, many women like Goldsmith, who says, "I think the art of political compromise is very important to learn, in terms of political survival. But as a movement with the potential to bring about change, we need to always be aware of the danger of compromising too deeply. I think we always need to be prepared to hold the line as strongly and stubbornly as possible, because reactionary forces are not going to be shy about pulling back in the other direction."

Both Yard and Goldsmith will be in San Diego this weekend at the forum for women state legislators -- sponsored in part by the Adolph Coors Co., Philip Morris Co. Inc. and American Express.

There, women suggest, lies the future. But as Goldsmith speaks, it is both 1977 and 1987 at once. "The reality is, of course, that power exists, and someone will exercise it. And if we don't responsibly exercise power on behalf of women, you can be sure someone else will come along and say, 'Listen, sweetheart, you can count on me to do that for you.'

"How far have we come? It's hard to say. When you have some sense of the history of a movement -- and this one's about 140 years old -- 10 years is a blip on the screen. But it feels as if it is an advance.