Women and success. We're rethinking that. After a decade of the most intense discussion about the rights and needs of individual women, of listening to a cacophony of voices all proposing to speak agreements, women are counting gains and losses.

I have spent a lot of time trying to sort these things out. When, in the 1970s, I began writing seriously and working to establish my own identity, the New Feminism was flourishing. I was lucky. Women were news. Women's books were marketable; women were sought on the lecture circuit; magazines courted women writers; and women, in token numbers, were sought as directors of corporations, college trustees, members of commissions. I and other "reentry" women benefited. The new generation of younger women also gained ground, enrolling in previously all-male colleges, finding satisfaction in high-pressure, fast-paced careers. The progress toward equality seemed steady and fast. Success seemed within the grasp of the woman who would reach for it.

Now I am not so sure. Working at something worthwhile implies, for most of us, doing something that is rewarded by society. The rewards can be wealth, fame, honor, but -- at a minimum -- remuneration and respect. One of the chief reasons women rebelled in the first place was that they came to realize the work traditionally relegated to them commanded precious little pay and little or no respect.

Even more jolting was the realization that the calling most women thought central to their existence -- call it housewifery, call it homemaking -- had been largely emptied of its meaning. Education, recreation, the manufacture and design of clothing, health care, the preservation of food, provision for income and shelter all had moved away from the home -- once their center. The homemaker was left with a little child care, a little cooking and cleaning and a lot of chauffeuring and consumerism. She received money, true, but had no control of her finances. Business and politics controlled her world, and she had no direct effect in either field. Even her good work, her volunteerism, had become trivial. It was no longer the work of reform but that of providing the troops for philanthropic bureaucracies and movements largely directed by men. She was supposed to be a companion to a husband whose world she did not share.

So women assaulted the world of work. But after the assault, are they better off than they were 50 years ago?

Well, yes and no. Women are still the poorest of the poor, still in the low-paying jobs, paid half as much as men in the same occupations. But -- and this is very important -- they have won the right of choice. Almost every occupation has been opened to them. They can be policemen, firemen, truck drivers, hard hats, soldiers, sailors if they choose. The professions have been opened up so significantly that the top third of most graduating classes in law and medicine include as many women as men. Women are engineers, architects, CPAs, MBAs. There is no longer just the occasional woman doctor or lawyer. Many of them have reached the level of middle management in almost every business.

Earlier this year I had the occasion to talk with and review the correspondence of a number of young women who had graduated from a newly coeducational college within the last 10 years. Their initial success was impressive. They were architects, lawyers, personnel managers, brokers, what-have-you, well launched in what were once male-only occupations. Many were married; others fully expected to be. Some were already mothers. They saw no need to make choices. They felt that they had the right to all three fields: career, marriage, motherhood.

But they had encountered problems and were resentful that they had not been prepared for those problems. They had taken the rhetoric of New Feminism's first wave for reality. Now they were dismayed to discover that discrimination and sexual harassment still existed in the work place.

"Sometimes I think the battle between men and women will never end," said a harried medical student.

"I don't think that men will let us get beyond middle management," said a woman in finance.

"My competence seems to threaten my employer and co-workers; they block me from assignments," complained a young architect.

But the biggest disappointment is in their two-career marriages. A rare few had husbands who fully shared the home work load. Another few had husbands who were willing to make moves so that their wives could advance in careers. The majority admitted ruefully that although their husbands subscribe to equality in theory, they cannot handle it in practice.

"If we have a child, I know I'll have to take time out for a few years. I believe a child needs full attention for awhile," said a young lawyer, "but two years away from the law -- or five -- can be crucial. It doesn't seem fair."

Success for these women is compromised, if not by the men they work with, then surely by the men they love.

This disappointment echoes the discoveries made by earlier feminists. Throughout the 1970s women expressed everything from unreasoning rage at man as the enemy to an unrealistic expectation that a new and understanding male was emerging. (After all, hadn't we seen Dustin Hoffman playing a convert to women's rights? And hadn't we seen Alan Alda displaying so much understanding in role after role?) But in real life, feminists find that love and new understanding in short supply among the men they know.

"I tried very hard," writes feminist Jane O'Reilly in an imaginary conversation with an imaginary granddaughter. "But there was some fatal lack of coincidence between men and women of my generation. The men seemed to suffer some dreadful lack of imagination, a tragic failure of generosity.... We changed ourselves but we had not changed anything else, except perhaps the expectations of our children."

This lack of congruence between men and women is evidently an old story in America. Cambridge University political scientist D. W. Brogan in The American Character gave us an unsentimental picture of the first frontiersmen: "illiterate, often drunken, often violent... with permanent temptations to the savage anarchy that the frontiers pressed on men who had a natural bias toward anarchy, toward adventure, or they would not have crossed the mountains into the untamed land."

For such men, women were wives, mothers and teachers: "The Mississippi Valley needed to have its hair combed, it needed to have someone to see that its boys washed behind the ears," commented Brogan. As a result, Americans seemed to become permanent "boys," the word we use when we describe our armed forces. Pearl Buck, coming from China in the 1940s, found American women patiently and sadly accepting their middle-age and even old husbands as "perennial boys," absorbed in the games of business and war. The men and women of the United States, she found, lived very separate lives.

It is not just that men do not relinquish power easily but that they find it hard to share their world. Men at the top are unsettled by the invasion of their world of work. And, at the bottom, the bluegrass and "good ol' boys" of our popular culture remind us that the pull of anarchy, violence and lonesome adventure have not disappeared. The man riding the cab of a semi is not much different from the man riding the stagecoach.

In the world of politics as in the world of business, women find the same barriers. Few of them hold office, and few seem to vote differently from the men in their lives. The women of the movement, according to Gloria Steinem, were at first wary of politics and the political process. They were certainly inept at it.

Yet the most significant gains for women have been made via politics -- through affirmative action, Title VII, Title IX and the appointive process. As a matter of fact, for the first time the women of the post - World - War - II United States are emerging as a political force.

This trend began to surface before the 1980 election, when it became apparent that far fewer women were going to vote for Ronald Reagan than were men because the women thought that Reagan's foreign policy would lead to war. The president's approval rate among women is still 10 to 11 percent lower than it is among men. Now, in the 1980s, women are beginning to shape defense and diplomacy too. The leadership pf women like Helen Caldecott and Randall Forsberg in the nuclear debate has a great deal to do with making the administration step more carefully.

Poll-taker Patrick Caddell summed up women's gains: "It's the women who seem to be staking out the first set of positions, whether it's on quality of life or nuclear power, and the men who seem to be moving toward them. If the pattern holds up, it could be of enormous political significance."

Ironically, it would seem that women's influence is more powerful in defense of the human race than of their own rights. Nevertheless, the emergence of women as a separate force in politics is now apparent. Who knows what will come of it?

So let us suppose that the women of the 1980s continue to make gains in the world of business, in the professions, in politics. Will they feel successful?

Probably not. In our society, the notion of success is tied to work, and the world of work is, as we have seen, still the world of men. Many barriers to women's success will fall further when that world adjusts to women. But the options women have asked for -- flexible work hours, pensions and salaries adjusted to women's need to leave work for a few years for childbearing -- all these are, for the most part, still matters of discussion.

And women are not content with success unless they can look on their personal lives as successful. In the latest chapter of the "math gene" controversy, David Naines reported that, although women math majors have the same ability as men to let the subject dominate their lives, there was a certain "diffuseness" in the women's attitude. By that he meant, undoubtedly, that women want more than a work life. And women think men should want more too.

That is showing up in the rush of successful career women to have babies before it is "too late." But it is also evident in the activity of younger women, who are choosing to defer their final drive for success in a career because they want one child, perhaps two, first.

"It's a little scary," says one young woman now preparing for a profession, "but I can't say that I know a woman who is now leading the life I would like to lead." She is undismayed. She feels in charge of her life. She knows more about work than older feminists. She has never intended to be taken care of, to be dependent on a man. She has always paid her own way. Many like her have explored the alternative and have decided that marriage, after all, makes for stability and commitment.

Such a young woman is stronger than her foremothers. She has survived a whirlwind of change in the 1960s and 1970s -- a period almost as anarchic on the social frontier as that on the physical frontiers of old. The '60s and '70s were the decades of which Joseph Epstein wrote: "As never before, forces material and psychological have conjoined to let men and women test their most secret fantasies in the open. Switch jobs, change cities, drop a wife and pick up another, give group sex a filing, buggery a try, drugs a go -- things have got to get better. Affluence and psychological liberation have made nearly everything possible; not the sky but human anatomy is the limit, and yet nothing any longer seems quite good enough."

The young woman of the 1980s has emerged from this whirlwind into a world in which she is choosing her own limits to conform with her deepest needs. But she is having to do that in a world, a separate world, that men had to themselves for a very long time and in which she is not very welcome. To make it her world too -- and then to share it comfortably with men -- can she succeed at that?