Strom Thurmond, the oldest gentleman in the Senate, inadvertently ignited a testy exchange between the sexes that yesterday had feminists fuming and demanding -- in vain as it turned out -- that the confirmation hearings for David Souter be extended.

While a remark of Thurmond's may have started the fracas, it was his colleague from Wyoming, Alan Simpson, who cranked up the volume by giving abortion-rights advocates a bristling lecture on manners. By the end of Tuesday's hearing, the women were protesting that they had been treated like "schoolgirls" and (figuratively) "spanked" for their behavior.

The emotional set-to in and around the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearings on Judge Souter's nomination to the Supreme Court suggested the hair-trigger sensitivities surrounding the way men address women in the modern age, as well as deeper frustrations and animosities boiling beneath the civil surface of the hearings.

The spark, however, was utterly innocuous. When Thurmond, South Carolina's 87-year-old Republican senator, was offered the routine opportunity to question representatives of abortion-rights organizations opposing Souter's nomination, he declined.

"Mr. Chairman, we have a group of lovely ladies here," he said tonelessly. "We thank you for your presence. I have no questions."

Evidently some of the "ladies" he was addressing rolled their eyes at Thurmond's antique terminology, reading into it condescension for their sex and cause. Simpson noticed the witnesses' exasperation, and a few moments later, as he was reminding them that he was in favor of abortion rights too, he got a taste of it himself -- more body language from the witness table that lit the senator's fuse.

"I do think you do a disservice to the cause we share, to ensure that women have this freedom to choose," Simpson was saying, "because even Roe v. Wade -- "

Here Simpson stopped, and his voice tightened. "Don't shrug," he said, beginning to waggle his hand at the women. "I see that all the time. I get tired of watching shrugs and kind of looking up at the ceiling when Strom Thurmond says something courteous."

Continuing to dress down the women -- who included NOW President Molly Yard, lawyer Gloria Allred, former representative Elizabeth Holtzman and Fund for the Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal -- Simpson presumed to characterize their unspoken thoughts toward the senators: " 'Who are these boobs and how did they not listen to what we say to them and can't they hear us?' " That, Simpson said, was "a tiresome arrogance."

And as he returned to Roe v. Wade, Simpson addressed them as "ladies" again.

Yard spoke next, and by way of "apologizing" to Thurmond "if he didn't like my glances," took up Simpson's challenge, meeting his dryness with her own.

"We are greeted every time we come before him as, 'Ladies, you're all so attractive,' " she said, drawing snickers for her imitation of Thurmond. "Somehow it does not sit well. Maybe you could explain to him that we would like to be able to be treated the way you treat everybody else. You don't say to men, 'Gentlemen, you all look lovely.' "

As the laughter in the hearing room died down, an unsmiling Simpson rose immediately to his colleague's defense. "He's a man of great civility and a Southern gentleman of the first order. And if you don't like the way he expresses himself, what business is that of yours?"

Committee Chairman Joseph Biden (D-Del.) here broke in to beg everyone to "kind of move on," which they did, returning to questions of Souter's slender judicial record and an often acrimonious back-and-forth between Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and Holtzman, now comptroller of the city of New York, about Souter's ruling for the defendant in a 1988 rape case.

When the hearing broke up Tuesday afternoon, the abortion rights advocates were still smarting from their treatment.

"They were lecturing us like schoolgirls," Smeal told reporters. "We were powerless. They would not stop talking so that we could answer the questions. Of course we don't want to be talked down to, and to be talked {to} about our looks. That we're lovely young ladies. It's insulting."

Yard, speaking of Simpson, said that "he was spanking me."

The National Organization for Women later demanded an extension of the hearings "to take testimony on the disastrous consequences that would follow a reversal of Roe v. Wade" -- as well as "an apology from the committee for the behavior of some of its members."

Staff writer Ruth Marcus contributed to this story.