LISTENING to the soft hum of their voices as they wait for Sarah Weddington, special assistant to President Carter on women's issues, one realizes just how out of place Bella Abzug -- with her floppy hats and dowdy figure and loud voice -- would be in this room.

It is 7:30 on a rainy, unseasonably warm January morning and the meeting room of the Fort Worth Hilton Inn is wall-to-wall with nearly indistinguishable faces, delegates to a twoday conference of Area 5 of the Junior League. Even at this early hour they shine, as though someone had run a buffer over them, from the tops of their glossy every-hair-in-place coiffures, down their perfectly made-up blushed-on faces, across the silk dresses or Villager blouses or elegantly cut pantsuits, to the tips of their polished $80 shoes.

Why most of these women in their late 20s or early 30s should be blonde remains a mystery; but there is not a black face in the room, although a Junior League official in New York says that "there are a number of black members throughout the country -- I just can't say how many or where because we don't keep records on members' races." Like the four conferees from New Orleans with Old-Family French surnames and French Quarter or Garden District addresses, the representatives appear to be, as they traditionally have been, the cream off the top of milky-white Southern society.

Most of them are wives and mothers, volunteers to charitable organizations, dedicated to supporting their husbands in business or law or medicine in the large and middle-sized cities of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. But, even in the Junior League, things are changing: 28 to 30 percent of active Junior Leaguers, according to their national office, now "work outside the home," as they like to put it.

One imagines that, if polled, few of them would disagree with a woman's right to "equal pay for equal work," but some might have reservations about the Equal Rights Amendment. (Of the states represented here, Texas has ratified the ERA, Louisiana has defeated it, and it has not come up for vote in the other four state legislatures.) For some of the women in this room, the time to register their opinions will come this May: delegates to last year's national convention of the Junior League directed their board of directors to draft a resolution on ERA to be voted on at the 1979 convention in Atlanta.

One woman worries to a friend sitting next to her about that old Southern bugaboo, "federal intervention to enforce the law": "What does Section 2 [the section of the ERA dealing with federal enforcement] mean? How are they going to enforce it?" Another delegate tells a reporter that she is concerned that those women who choose to stay home as wives and mothers not be downgraded for their choice. Later, a singularly striking blonde from Lake Charles, La., will tell Weddington that she is "sick of quotas, preferential treatment for women and blacks... I just want people's rights." An Alabaman asks Weddington, with thinly veiled disgust, "Are women being treated like blacks ? Are more women being hired today because they're qualified or just because they're women?" There's a lot of "I'm not a feminist but..." in their conversations.

To a woman, they would probably agree that a lot of things have indeed changed. Last year the Fort Worth Junior League hosted Marable Morgan, creator of The Total Woman philosophy and advocate of greeting your hubby at the door dressed in nothing but Saran Wrap as you inform him of the culinary and other earthly delights about to be his for the taking. Today the Junior League, from Fort Worth and elsewhere, is gathered to hear Sarah Weddington -- a White House aide who has been involved in the women's movement for almost a decade, a three-term Texas legislator and former general counsel to the Department of Agriculture, and the lawyer who, at age 27, argued and won the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case that overturned states' anti-abortion laws.

But if the women of the Junior League do not already know of the achevement that made Weddington something of a heroine among feminists, they will not find it out here. Nor will the public school administrators attending a Title IX briefing later in the morning in Dallas. Nor will the party regulars dining at the noon luncheon of the Dallas Democratic Forum.

No, the official biography of Sarah Weddington says only that she "was on the winning side in an important Supreme Court case," the supposition being, one guesses, that those who know, do, and those who don't, don't need to. In fact, the only time Weddington mentions abortion to the Junior League is in reference to a bill that would provide "medical benefits to women suffering complications arising from pregnancy or abortion," and on the word "abortion" her voice noticeably lowers, almost hesitates, as though she is trying to slip by something unpleasant.

That omission, perhaps more than anything else, seems to symbolize the controversy that surrounds Weddington's White House role following President Carter's Jan. 12 firing of Bella Abzug, co-chairman of his National Advisory Committee for Women, and the subsequent announced resignations of more than half the 40-member panel. It is a controversy over exactly what part Weddington played in Abzug's firing, over whether she is, or can be, anything more than a "token" or "yes-woman" in the Carter White House, over whether she has lost her credibility with the women's movement, and over whether that matters. It is, perhaps, a conflict between different means to a common end, between styles, between the Politics of Conciliation and the Politics of Confrontation, between the Sarah Weddingtons and the Bella Abzugs of this world.

And so, after a week spent fending off rumors, answering questions, conferring with other White House aides and contacting members of the women's advisory committee, both those who said they were leaving and those who planned to stay, to say that she still hoped "we can work together in whatever capacity you choose," it is good, Weddington tells the Junior League, "to get out of Washington for a while and change perspective."

And it is immediately clear which side of the controversy these young women would be on were they asked to take sides. Sarah Weddington is someone they can relate to, with her Texas accent and her wine-colored ultrasuede suit. She is not exactly one of them, this Methodist minister's daughter from West Texas, never having faced the "problem" of being either "too rich or too thin," to paraphrase the late Babe Paley. Still, they are proud of her, impressed that she works in the White House.

She compliments them as "women who come from a group of community leaders," and jokes with them about Washington -- "My friends said, 'Why, Sarah, Washington is a city without Country & Western music, a city without barbeque, a city without Mexican food. It's just not civilized!'" They laugh approvingly when she describes the feeling of delighted surprise when she drives up to the White House in her red Gremlin and the guards open the gate -- "And I think, 'Now, that's fun !'"

They nod in agreement when she talks about ERA extension, increasing social security benefits for "displaced homemakers," tax reforms to help two-income families, increased deductions for child care, hiring more women in the federal government, limiting veterans' preference rules. Or when she describes a poll in the February issue of Ladies' Home Journal that indicates that "women want a more conciliatory attitude in terms of working with each other and think that there is a need for new leaders, but an overwhelming majority favor the goals of the womenhs movement."

And they seem satisfied by her answer to a request that she "comment on the events surrounding the firing of Bella Abzug": "My role must now be one of healing any wounds. The issues are the most important thing. The president simply felt that he could work more closely with a different chairman and that we could thus work more closely with the membership."

Generous applause follows her speech and the women of the Junior League swarm around her, asking questions, thanking her for her time. Clearly, they are charmed, as one woman from Mississippi gushes to another, "Wasn't she just faan-taas -tic? Why, I could just listen to her all day!" And that, Sarah Weddington might say, is the point.

To find Sarah Weddington's office in the West Wing of the White House you have to go through several doors, down various corridors several doors, down various corridors and a flight of stairs. The two crowded rooms in the basement once housed Weddington's predecessor, Midge Costanza, the self-described "loud-mouthed pushy little broad" who resigned last Auagust after repeated conflicts with White House staffers.

Costanza began her White House tenure in an office down the hall from President Carter. Originally named assistant to the president in charge of public liaison, a broad category covering a range of special interest groups that included ethnics, minorities and women, Costanza was banished to the nether regions of the West Wing after a White House "reorganization" took away all of her duties but "women's issues."

When Weddington was appointed to the White House post in September, cynics speculated that the White House basement was about where women's issues belonged on the administration's list of priorities and wondered how soon the former Texas legislator would follow the former vice mayor of Rochester, N.Y., down the driveway and out the metal gates.

Weddington, however, came to her new position last fall with a set of experiences that differed significantly from Costanza's. In addition to a long list of credentials in the women's movemwnt, she had earned a reputation as an excellent lawyer, specializing in the area of family law, and as an unusually effective member of the Texas Monthly's "Ten Best Legislators" is 1974. She had already had a sizable dose of federal bureaucracy at Agriculture, where she directed a large-scale reorganization of the general counsel's office.

But the most interesting contrast between Weddington and Costanza is a matter of personality and style. Not to mention the fact that Sarah Ragle Weddington is a Southerner. Like Jody Powell and Hamilton Jordan. Like Jimmy Carter.

You don't get things done in the South by being a "loud-mouthed pushy little broad." You get things done by speaking in a soft voice, courteously but firmly, with apparent openness, like Sarah Weddington. You get things done by looking like a lady -- elegant tailored black suit, hose and shoes, crisp white blouse with a gold stickpin holding a soft tie, slightly wavy red-blonde hair wound in a neat chignon, a peaches-and-cream complexion. Hers is a manner and way of dressing so conservative, so almost matronly, that were it not for the flawless skin, the absence of lines and wrinkles, you might be surprised to learn that Sarah Weddington is only 34 years old this month.

But the contrast between Weddington and Costanza goes far deeper than a soft voice or the fact that Weddington has no known vices -- she neither smokes nor drinks, and says "Fiddle!" when irritated -- to a set of experiences and a style of operating that comefortably match the president's own. Whereas Costanza's problems were rumored to be due as much to her inability to get organized or to delegate responsibility as to her outspokenness, Weddington -- a Southern woman politican, that object as rare as a black orchid blooming in the middle of the Sahara -- long ago came to believe that, fair or not, to be effective she would have to be a little bit smarter, a lot better organized, and a whole lot harder working than the fellow at the next deask.

The virtues of hard work and determination seem natural for a preacher's daughter from the hardscrabble plains of West Texas. Like her boss, a farmer's son from Georgia, Sarah Weddington has always been what social scientists now call an "over-achiever." Because the family of a Methodist minister moves frequently -- Abilene, Lubbock, Wylie, Childress, Canyon, Abilene again -- Weddington was always something of an "outsider" in each new school. "My parents always encouraged me to be whatever I wanted to be," she recalls, "and they never told me that I couldn't do something just because my father was a minister." Still, she did learn a certain amount about being in the public eye, about self-discipline: "You knew people were watching you. You had to sit still in church and keep your dress pulled down over your knees."

After finishing hign school in Abilene at 16, she earned a degree magna cum laude from McMurry College, a Methodist school in her hometown, and was certified to teach English and speech.

Student teaching convinced her that "thre must be a better way to earn a living," and she went to see her counselor at McMurry, saying she was thinking of going to law school. The man's son was then in law school and was, his father said, "having such a difficult time that I can't imagine a young lady like you wnating to go through that." It was enough to convince her to enroll.

Even in the mid-'60s there were few women in law school at the University of Texas, and it was there that Weddington became fully aware of discriminatory practices on the part of male professors and law firm recruiters. As she neared graduation, a big Dallas firm flew her up for an interview. "They wanted to know how I would handle a flamily, how I would handle having to work late with all those male lawyers. They'd never had a woman in their firm before," Weddington says, still bristling slightly with indignation.

She helped rewrite the American Bar Association's code of ethics, spent a year as assistant city attorney in Fort Worth, then set up a practice in family law in Austin. She and a law school classmate, Dallas attorney Linda Coffee, had been talking about the possibility of finding a case to challenge the Texas anti-abortion law; as luck would have it, the case, which become known as Roe vs. Wade, walkied into Coffee's office one day, and she enlisted Weddington's help. The Supreme Court appearance was only Weddington's second time in court -- the first was when the abortion case was tried in lower court -- but her poise was already apparent. Recalls a friend who came to Washington for the coccasion, "She was so cool it was absolutely amazing. There was a lawyer there who had appeared before the Supreme Court a number of times, every time, he said, shaking in his boots, and he couldn't believe Sarah's poise."

Elected from Austin to the Texas House of Representatives in 1972, Weddington quickly became part of the "Dirty 30," a group of largely younger, more liberal (though "liberal" is still a relative term in Texas) legislators elected in the reform movement that almost put a woman, Rep. Frances "Sissy" Farenthold, in the governor's mansion.

The Texas legislature was then, and still is, a chamber that houses a record number of good ol' boys who like to doze through long air-conditioned afternoons and do business over bottles of Lone Star at Schultz's Beer Garden, a famous Austin political and student hangout. Weddington won them over, remembers State Sen. Lloyd Doggett of Austin, in part by quietly going about her business, doing her homework and being well prepared. Like the Dallas lawyers, the good-ol'-boy legislators didn't quite know what to make of a woman among them. "They had little experience with professional women," Weddington says. "Once they understood how we wanted to be treated, they really tried."

It was then that Weddington began to adopt a more conservative style of dress, though her style had never been flashy. Blessed with thick red-gold hair, she had always worn it long. One day a friend's mother related a conversation she had overheard on an Austin bus in which a group of constituents were discussing Weddington. "Although they really liked what Sarah stood for," says the friend, novelist Shelby Hearon, "they wondered why she didn't get all that hair out of her face."

Weddington took the hint. "I adopted my style of dress long before The Woman's Dress for Success Book came out," she laughs, "but I do believe that how you look influences hwo people respond to you." Says a woman long involved in Texas politics, "Because of Sarah's looks and manner and background, she could advocate almost anything and get away with it. She could've gotten up and spoken for sterilizing all women over 21, and they'd have listened."

It wasn't easy for an attractive young woman in her mid-20s to learn to be "one of the boys," but learn she did, even occasionally donning a flannel shirt to go camping and hunting with her male colleagues, sometimes joining them at Schultz's or The Broken Spoke, an Austin country music dance hall. But mostly she worked hard, lobbying to keep the state's ratification of the ERA from being rescinded, pushing through equal credit legislation and a bill strengthening rape laws.

During this time, Weddington was also having problems with her marrige, and in 1974 her seven-year union with husband and law partner Ron Weddington ended in what she describes as an "amicable" divorce. Her friends have described Ron Wedington variously as "quite bright," "charming in a Hamilton Jordan sort of way," and "crude and vulgar." Says one of Sarah's friends, "None of us ever liked him." Weddington herself says only that "he was always very supportive of my career, but there came a point when he wanted someone to stay home and watch television with him and I just wasn't there."

Although one Austin critic says sharply that Weddington "was so concerned with women's issues, she ignored everything else," Ann Richards, who managed Weddington's first legislative campaign and later served as an administrative assistant, points to Weddington's record of legislation dealing with historic preservation, state funding for kidney dialysis patients and better protection for state employes. But, adds Richards, "Sarah was very much aware of the fact that there were no real voices for women in the state. I think she felt like when you have an opportunity to speak out, you should."

The only sour note during Weddington's stint in the legislature, says a former Texas journalist and Weddington-watcher, was that some of the members of the Dirty 30 were angry when Weddington, having decided not to run for re-election, went ON A TRIP TO China, sponsored by the American Committee on U.S.-China Relations, in May 1977, missing her last month in the Texas House. Although she acknowledges the criticism and says that she wasn't surprised by it, Weddington defends the trip by noting that she cleared all her own pending legislation before going and didn't finally decide to make the trip until the day before the group departed.

Be that as it may, bygones will be bygones. Even Doggett, who had worked closely with Weddington on legislative issues and who was rumored to have been "bitter" about her China trip, has only good things to say about his former colleague now. What seems clear is that Weddington learned a certain amount of political maturity in the Texas legislature. As she recently put it, "if I could survive there, I can survive anywhere."

"It hasn't been the easiest week I've ever had," Sarah Weddington says understatedly, calmy budkling her seatbelt for a flight to Texas, where she will give three speeches in two cities over a four-hour period the next day. The reporter beside her stiffens for take-off; Weddington, who's had a pilot's license for a year and a half, notices the anxiety. "I love take-offs. I'm very good at them -- it's landings I have trouble with," she laughs.

She's been taking flak all week, trying to land on her feet after what some have called "The Friday Afternoon Massacre." An earlier trip to Palm Springs to speak to a convention of the Bakery Equipment Manufacturers Association had to be canceled: "i just had to be here, to try to deal with all the speculation, to try to sort things all out," Weddington says.

Perhaps some of the brouhaha following Abzug's firing could have been avoided had it been handled dfferently? "I don't think you'll find anyone who disagrees with that," Wedington answers.

Intead the incident took on the countours of a Marx Brothers movie -- the press release critical of the president prepared before the women's advisory committee had met with him, the leak of the press release to Jody Powell's office, the White House decision to fire Abzug but not to tell her until after the meeting. Raped escalation of events: Abzug praising the president, than being summoned to Hamilton Jordan's office and told to resign or be fired; Abzug protesting that she's an innocent "scapegoat"; White House counsel Robert Lipshutz allegedly calling her "a liar" and saying that next she'd be claiming she'd been fired because she's a Jew; protest resignations from committee members, numbering 23 to 27 depending on whom you talk to. And Sarah Weddington Caught in the Crossfire, a kind of Groucho as Captain Spaulding.

Weddington is aware of the criticism and the speculation about her own role in Abzug's departure. Early press reports had it that Weddington was in agreement with the president's action, but no one seemed to be saying whether she had been consulted before the decision was made. One well-known frminist told a reporter, "If she wasn't consulted, as Carter's adviser on women's issues, then her position is superfluous -- she's lost her credibility. If she was in it, she should be ashamed of herself.She's lost the confidence of the women's movement. I don't see how she can continue in the position." Snapped another movement activist, "She should resign."

The mud flew back and forth all week, like the aftermath of a Pacific Coast mudslide. Critics of the president's action pointed out that Abzug had not authored nor authorized the press release and that she had been against the committee's cancellation of a Nov. 15 meeting with Carter because he had allotted them only 15 minutes. In criticizing Carter for his cuts in social spending and increases in defense spending, Abzug was, they said, speaking not for hereslf but for the whole committee.They felt that, despite his statements that he welcomed constructive criticism, what the president really wanted was a "yes-woman," someone in "velvet gloves," as syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman put it. On the other hand, various rumors about Abzug's "high-handedness" and attempts to undermine Weddington soon found their way into print.

According to Weddington's account and that of other White House aides, she was called to a senior staff meeting on the morning of Jan. 12, shown the press release, and "briefly" consulted about what should be done. Adked if she had been asked about the political ramifications of abruptly firing Abzug, Weddington replied, "No, and perhaps we should have considered that more carefully." Not having Weddington involved in all aspects of the decision was in part, says one senior White House official, "an attempt to protect Sarah." Considering the criticism, that may have been a mixed blessing.

The staff, however, was aware of some tension between Abzug and Weddington: when Weddington asked to be included in the scheduled Nov. 15 meeting of the advisory committee, Abzug sent her back a curt note saying she shouldn't come. Later, says a presidential assistant, "We heard that other things had happened, that Bella had been running Sarah down to the committee and to other feminists. But Sarah had never complained, she just assumed that kind of thing came with the territory."

Although most White House officials said they "didn't what to keep hammering at Bella -- it sounds petty," as one described it, they still fell Carter "did the right thing." One source close to the situation acknowledged that "while it's true that other members of the committee were also critical of the administration, Bella set the tone from the beginning. If she didn't know about the press release, she should have -- she was the chairman." Carmen Delgado Votaw, the committee's co-chairman who quit in protest, was, sources said, "a much more effective spokesman, but she was simply no match for Bella."

According to a senior aide, Weddington was "in close contact with the president in the week following Abzug's firing, and I think she's handled the whole affair extremely well." On the Monday following Abzug's dismissal, Weddington conducted a briefing on the Carter administration's efforts to fill the 151 vacant federal judgeships with a "significant percentage of women" (of 575 federal judges, only nine are women). The briefing was attended by "a number of the women's advisory committee," and "weddington hopes that "many of them will reconsider resigning."

The president, another aide says, has "promised the committee access, and it would be self-defeating for someone like Eleanor Smeal [president of NOW] to walk away from that."

"The furor is at the moment definitely a minus for the administration," Weddington admits, "but the issues are more important than personalities. One positive thing is that it has brought a lot of women together -- it's shown that the movement is bigger and stronger than any one of us."

Exactly, commented a prominent feminist: "We're stronger as a result. It's the first time so many women from such diverse backgrounds and constituencies have gotten together. The Carter administration is on probation with women and they'd better realize that. The only sustained applause Carter got in Memphis [the site of the December Democratic mini-convention] was when he mentioned ERA."

The current flap is not the first criticism that Weddington has received since comming to the White House. Her appointment drew protests from both Roman Catholics who feared Weddington's pro-abortion stance and some feminists who felt she was "compromising herself" by working for Carter, who does not favor federal funding for abortions. (He does not support a constitutional amendment banning abortion, however.)

Weddington insists that she "feels comfortable about it [the abortion issue] because it's something the president and I have talked about. I know he respects my opinion just as I respect his right to make a final decision. There are bound to be differences of opinion with anyone you work for, and despite that disagreement, I firmly believe that President Carter's support for women is genuine." It was Weddington's explanation of the position favoring federal funding taken at the National Women's Conference in Houston in November 1977 that first impressed Carter with her abilities, although she didn't change his mind about the issue.

When she first met with the president about coming to work at the White House, Weddington recalls, "I asked him what his hopes for women were instead of telling him my own. His answere were so eloquent that I agreed to take the job." She also felt that "I could have more real effect on issues that concern women than I could anywhere else."

Almost immediately after signing on with Carter the new aide faced the first test of her hopes when she successfully directed the campaign for Senate approval extending the deadline for ERA ratification. One staffer who worked with her closely, Bob Thompson, assistant to Frank Moore, Carter's congressional liaison, marvels that "she was able to get her feet on the ground so quickly and provide policy leadership." Working out of Vice President Mondale's office off the Senate floor, she was, Thompson says, "immensely effective in explaining the administration's position to individual senators." Adds Carter assistant Anne Wexler, "Sarah is one of the main reasons the extension passed. Without her leadership, I think it would've had a much tougher time." An officer of a national feminist organization disagreed: "A lot of us worked awfully hard on extension and then Sarah came in and got all the credit."

Weddington herself believes that the ERA extension campaign "demonstrated how to work effectively within the White House. The president made a commitment to extension and I was there to coordinate the effort to carry out that commitment."

That is, in fact, how Weddington sees her jor: as the person responsible for seeing that Carter's commitment to women is carried out. She will be working with Frank Moore's office on legislation that affects women; trying to see that more women are appointed to federal judgeships, boards and agencies; coordinating the Interdepartmental Task Force on Women, a group representing women in the federal government; explaining the administration's position on women's issues to groups throughout the country.

But passage of the ERA is still the top priority, and a significant portion of Weddington's time is spent talking to legislators in unratified states. "She's very good with them," observes Liz Carpenter, former Johnson aide and now co-chairman of EFA-America, "because she speaks their language and understands their problems. She's been one of them." A Carter advisere agrees: "This is what we didn's have before. Sarah understands the politics, how to persuade people of the basic rightness of ERA, and she knows how to do it personally, on a one-to-one basis. That's how you get results, not from having the president publicly call a legislator who's sitting on the fence down in Florida." And, says the aide, Weddington has convinced him and other White House officials, that "we haven't done all we could have for ERA, we have to think of ways to do more."

For all her efforts, Weddington says, "I'm here to reflect the administration's position, and a lot of what I do is behind the scenes. The person who should get the credit is the president."

But the president, of course, also gets the blame when things go wrong or when people disagree with his positions. It is no doubt this awareness that is responsible for the omission from official introductions of Weddington's role in Roe vs. Wade. Anyone who believes that "pro-life" (antiabortion) groups are not politically powerful only has to look at the November defeats of Democratic senators Dick Clark in Iowa and Floyd Haskell in Colorado to find out hos wrong that view is.

Maybe it's "selling out," as some feminists say. Maybe it's just a recognition of political realities.

In fact, President Carter has, both in rhetoric and in action -- the increase in the number of women appointed to federal boards and agencies, for example -- committed his administration to doing more for women than any president before him. The question that feminists ask, is, of course: Is it enough to make any real difference?

Maybe the women's movement is in a "second stage" that calls for a different kind of "political maturity," as one of Carter's advisers recently mused. While basic societal changes are usually begun in confrontation -- civil rights activists facing Bull Connor's dogs -- and thrust at us by extremists -- Black Panthers raising their fists and screaming "Death to Whitey!" -- they don't take root in our lives without the Andrew Youngs and Julian Bonds and Barbara Jordans -- and Lyndon Johnsons -- working to make them laws.

Some of the sniping at Weddington seems to reflect fears recently expressed by Ann Richards: "In a male group, the guy at the top gets almost undue praise and loyalty from the other men, but women tear down whoever gets on top. It's because we haven't had enough political experience. If Sarah doesn't succeed, it will be because of the women."

In Dallas recently a well-dressed fiftyish matron, long active in local feminist circles, followed a reporter into the ladies' room to voice some of the same concerns. "Please, you have to understand," she ended almost pleadingly, "if Sarah can't do this job, nobody can."