THE KALAHARI DESERT of southwestern Africa, one of the more miserable places on earth, seems remote in the din of the Smithsonian's dining room in the castle building on the Mall as archeologist Alison Brooks recalls its "thirstland -- a wasteland of sand, heat, thornscrub and grass.

"It's deceptive, because it looks lush, and there's a lot of vegetation there and you drive onto it and you sink up to your doors in sand. It's 600 feet deep in places. The air temperature reaches 120 in the shade in the hot season, and the temperature drops 50 degrees as soon as the sun goes down."

Almost no one wants to go to the Kalahari, but the allure of learning about the desert's survivors, the Bushmen of the Kalahari, has brought Brooks to this hellhole eight times, often with her husband, anthropologist John Yellen, and their two small children.

No day on the Kalahari is typical, Brooks says, "but there was this one day . . . " She was up early, as usual, every minute of daylight seeming precious when time in the field for a researcher is limited. Sneaking out of the tent, "I woke /y clicking the

name. (The symbol / represents a click consonant of

the Bushman languages.) "She was 13 years old, although she was smaller than my 8-year-old. She

would be responsible for the kids -- not in the

sense of a babysitter, but rather as the oldest

child in a play group."

On that particular morning, there were no special catastrophes, such as flat tires, and Brooks, along with several workers and her husband, set off for an excavation site. There they saw "a whole bunch of people running around . . . chasing a large male kudu (an African antelope) . . . Now the hunters and dogs drove the kudu up against the wall of our excavation, where the night before we had left exposed a whole lot of Middle Stone Age artifacts and bones covered with thornbush." The antelope ended up on top of the artifacts, and "the foremost hunter with the spear gave the kudu the 'ku du' grace. It expired on the floor. We then faced the problem of getting it out of our pit -- we're talking about 600 pounds . . . It was very hard to settle into our day."

Eventually the workers began digging while the anthropologists tried to identify exposed teeth, extinct animal bones or stone spear points. "As the day got hotter and hotter, we'd have to keep reminding ourselves to go sit in the shade and take drinks, until we finally faded and went home."

Back at camp, "people were very agitated because . . . a boomslang (a venomous climbing snake) had come out of the tree under which we lived. / Alexander (Brooks' 18-month-old son) and run away with him while some other kids came and killed the snake. There were no adults around . . . and this was a snake for which we had no antidote."

The day was not finished. "It's never the end of the day," Brooks says. Women with sick children come by seeking cures; there are endless difficulties keeping accounts with people who have no word for numbers greater than three, and there are distractions: "You hear the rumor that you're going to be invaded by a herd of buffalo, so suddenly all the workmen drop their tools and go off on a hunt. Or maybe the woman who sells sour milk cheese comes by the dig, and everybody gets into buying cheese. Or, suppose the zwa merchant comes by on a donkey, and he's just ridden 100 miles across the desert with saddlebags full of marijuana, and then everybody buys some and that's it for the day."

Three years ago, Brooks spent three months' worth of such days in the Kalahari testing two revolutionary archeological dating techniques in conjunction with the physics department of the University of Maryland. The results showed that the sites she was studying were 80,000 to 100,000 years old, rather than the 40,000 years previously estimated. As she worked, she unobtrusively, but insistently, carried with her a remarkable symbol of women pioneers: the flag of the Society of Women Geographers.

SINCE ITS FOUNDING in 1925, the society's flag has gone out 30 times in pursuit of "firsts" in science and exploration. It has flown with Amelia Earhart, accompanied Margaret Mead into Bali and New Guinea, followed Jackie Ronne to the South Pole, Mary Livingston Ripley to India and Eugenie Clark to the depths of the Red Sea. Last year the flag orbited in space with astronaut Kathryn Sullivan.

The society's 500 members are geographers only in the broadest sense; they are paleontologists, speleologists and cartographers, mountain bassadors, writers. There are active chapters in Washington, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco and the membership is drawn from nearly every state and 33 countries. Most important, members, selecting each other by invitation, understand a need to network in fields that have traditionally been dominated by men.

"I'm in a profession where there are hardly any women," Brooks says. "I can't think of more than three or four women who run field projects . . . Sometimes I feel very isolated in my position. So it's very nice to go to the SWG, where I can feel just one of the crowd . . . Where else could I meet a geographer, a sculptor and someone who trekked across Nepal?"

Margaret Mead expressed much the same sentiment when she addressed the society's 50th anniversary celebration in 1975 and declared, "I've always felt this is my gang."

The gang takes its work seriously. A member who needs help finding grant money, a publisher or people to make up an expedition is likely to find another member saying, "I know just the thing."

At the same time, members often express awe at the accomplishments of others. "Women do such wonderful things, but are so apologetic," says mountaineer Arlene Blum. "They say things like, 'Well, I didn't do anything much this summer. I just visited the pygmies and was kidnaped.'

Amelia Earhart, responding to the news that she had been elected to the society, wrote to its president, Harriet Chalmers Adams, in 1931:

Thank you for notifying me of election to the Society of Women Geographers. I am very much honored but doubtful of my qualifications. However, if the other members will bear with me a while, I'll try to make up the deficiencies . . .

LIKE MANY WOMEN'S organizations, the Society of Women Geographers has operated on a shoestring for years. Last year its income was just under $35,000, from dues, a few endowments and investments. Its modest circumstances are all the more evident when compared to its companion organization, the Explorers Club, housed in an elegant Tudor mansion near New York's Central Park.

In a backhanded way, the Explorers Club, until recently all male, is responsible for the creation of the Society of Women Geographers. The four women who founded the society might not have done so had they been admitted to the Explorers Club and other geographical societies.

"The men, you know, had had their hidebound, exclusive little explorers' and adventurers' clubs for years and years," says Adams, the first president of the society. "But they have always been so afraid that some mere woman might penetrate their sanctums of discussion that they don't even permit women in their clubhouses, much less allow them to attend any meetings for discussions that might be mutally helpful."

Exclusion is a story many members can tell. Arlene Blum's goes this way: In 1969 she felt she was highly qualified to apply for a climb in Afghanistan. This is the reply she says she received from the expedition leader:

Dear Miss Blum:

Not too easy a letter to write as your prior work in Peru demonstrates your ability to go high, and a source I trust has furnished a glowing account of your pleasant nature in the mountains.

But one woman and nine men would seem to me to be unpleasant high on the open ice, not only in excretory situations, but in the easy masculine companionship which is so vital a part of the joy of an expedition.

Sorry as hell . . .

Blum, who tactfully omits her correspondent's name from accounts of the incident, was equally sorry. She promptly began organizing expeditions exclusively for women, and in 1978 led the spectacular all-woman climb on Annapurna, one of the highest Himalayan peaks. These days she's climbing coed again, seeing in her own experience a cycle that reflects the situation for women in general: at first she climbed with men and was a subordinate; then she went with only women to establish her credentials as a leader; now she goes with men again, but is an accepted equal.

MARGARET MEAD spoke of the "symbiotic" relationship between women geographers and such organizations as the National Geographic Society and the Explorers Club. But to many members, the moment of unabashed mutual admiration has been long in coming, and maybe hasn't arrived yet.

Pondering the Explorers Club, zoologist Lucile Mann said, "In the old days it didn't want us at all. It was a man's club, something like the Cosmos Club." She pauses and muses: "I wouldn't want to be the first woman elected there, would you? Who'd want to belong to a club where you're not wanted?" It was her husband, a former director of the National Zoo, who she says first persuaded the Explorers Club to drop its anti-female bias enough to invite the woman geographers to an occasional meeting.

These days, in a positive rush of friendliness, the Washington chapter of the Explorers Club invites the society to monthly meetings -- at the Cosmos Club.

Asked if the choice of that segregated venue troubles any society members, SWG President Mary Vance Trent says, "Well, it galls me." She adds that while the present overtures of friendship are appreciated, "for the moment we're keeping our own identity."

The view that there should be separate identities is shared by most members, including Kathryn Sullivan, who belongs to both organizations. In 1981, Sullivan was the first woman invited to address the Explorers Club in New York. "Maybe I'll go meet these guys (who) are on the verge of figuring out there are these 50 percent other people in the world," she recalls thinking to herself. Then she learned that the speaking request was accompanied by an invitation to join. She decided to join the Society of Women Geographers first.

She feels a "pride of association" with the society and likes the idea that she could qualify to belong on the basis of her wilderness and backpacking interests, her experience with foreign people and languages -- she speaks seven -- and her work as a geologist. Her astronautical record was just an additional credential, she says.

SEVERAL YEARS AGO the society held a meeting at Meridian House International on 16th Street. Behind high oak doors and a red carpeted circular staircase, in a room lighted by chandeliers, well- dressed, mostly gray-haired women, some wearing dressy hats, spoke of dives and digs and dog-sled expeditions. apparently sizing up a guest, walked across the room and said: "You look fit. Do you do deserts?"

A special program had been arranged for the day, a showing of a film of the 1940 Firestone-Smithsonian Expedition to Liberia, an unprecedented African collection trip on which Lucile Mann, accompanying her husband, carried the society's flag.

A young Lucile Mann appeared on the screen, trekking through the Liberian jungle described by Graham Greene in A Journey Without Maps. In one scene, Mann encounters a group of girls just returned from gri- gri, or bush school, where they had spent two years preparing for womanhood. The bare- breasted girls, adorned with beads and elaborate hairdos wound with cowrie shells, are encouraged by Tetema, the wife of the paramount chief, to dance. They leap in frenzied unison in front of small, conical-shaped huts. On one of the roofs, the society's flag lies still in the windless heat. Suddenly, Lucile Mann, in shorts and oxfords, her hair in neat braids on her head, is on the screen dancing with Tetema. The clear, steady voice of Mann many decades later catches the moment with amusement. "Everybody laughed," she says wryly, "the rhythm was too hard for me to catch."

In another scene, Mann and her husband are invited to join the Secret Snake Society, one of the many West African magic groups. She is the only white woman ever admitted. In the initiation ceremony, attired in a demure blue and white dress topped off with a pith helmet, she is seated next to the witch doctor, who holds a poisonous cassava snake. "Over the course of a long initiation," Mann says, "we were taught the meaning of dozens of fetishes, some for snakebite, dysentery, backache, and how to twist a vine to break an enemy's back." She was given the name "yangwa" and an antelope horn covered with shells and dudu feathers. "I carried this back to the village proudly. Everybody knew what it meant."

Recognizing the value of the film, Pamela Henson, historian of the Smithsonian archives, wanted to preserve it and add the narrative. But by 1982, when the film preservation work was completed, Mann's eyesight had failed. For weeks Henson described the film frame by frame to Mann, who identified and explained every sequence.

Today Mann is 88 and lives in a nursing home in Bethesda. Her eyes, ears and legs have failed, but her mind, memory and wit have not. During a recent interview, she moved quickly with her walker to a bedside wheelchair, apologizing that she hadn't quite finished doing her hair. The past seemed as close as the pictures on her wall as she offered vivid recollections of the Liberian expedition, and laughed about another showing of the film -- to President Franklin Roosevelt in the White House in 1940.

"At that time," she said, "he was having terrible trouble with a filibuster in the Senate. After he learned that as a result of my induction in the Secret Snake Society I was specially empowered to 'cut a palaver,' he said, 'Mrs. Mann, may I appoint you to the Senate next week?'

The 1940 expedition was the second time Mann had carried the women geographers' flag. She had also taken it as the only woman on a 1937 National Geographic-Smithsonian trip to the East Indies. After living six months in Sumatra in an abandoned hospital, the expedition returned via the Indian coast and the Red Sea on a 50,000-ton freighter with about 1,000 animals aboard. They were 50 days on this latter-day ark.

"Imagine the Red Sea in August, all those animals and an epidemic of dysentery," Mann said. "It was my job to go down in the hold before breakfast to feed the animals and clean the monkey cages. Of course if I had known one of our 12 pythons had gotten loose and was hiding down there . . . "

Mann, who served as president of the society from 1951 to 1954, remembers her adventures and her friendships in the society with obvious pleasure. "I wish I could go to a meeting . . . Tell them I'm thinking of them."

The society is thinking of Mann, too. In its headquarters in a small basement office with barred windows near Dupont Circle, the books, photographs, tapes and films of members like Mann are being carefully stored for posterity.

Posterity is much on the minds of leaders of the society these days. For reasons nobody can quite explain, the group has quietly grown old. Nevertheless, the example of dauntless age is an attraction to younger members, who could hardly fail to be inspired by women like British member Dame Freya Stark. Last year Dame Freya reported in about her pony trek in the Himalayas from the border of Tibet back to Katmandu. "This does a lot of good even at 88," she wrote, "and it's very slimming."

MANY of the younger members of the Society of Women Geographers are curiously indistinguishable from the older members in their ability to live the faded dream of the women's movement: having it all. In ways that many women have not yet found, society members seem to juggle the many different parts of their lives successfully.

Alison Brooks, for example, has had to raise children in raw parts of the world filled with dangers more subtle than poisonous snakes. The year her daughter Elizabeth was 7, the family was in Africa with no opportunity for schooling. Brooks improvised by bringing along a reader, math and writing cards and a history book on African explorers. For months in the Kalahari, Elizabeth sat under an acacia tree doing her lessons. "I was terribly worried," says Brooks. Her daughter was scheduled to take entrance tests for fourth grade on her return, "and she'd never been through the third grade."

The tests were passed, thanks in large part to cooperation offered by her husband, cooperation that remains essential to Brooks' success. Last summer, for example, she was invited by anthropologist Noel Boaz to test her dating techniques at a previously unexplored site in the Western Rift Valley in Zaire while her husband traveled elsewhere with their children.

One morning Brooks and technician Leo Mastromatteo were walking near the Semki River when they came to a little gully and "we saw this tooth. We knew right away from looking at it that it was the tooth of an extinct pig . . . We have species-specific dates, and can date human sites by analogy." The discovery, she says, "was an 'Oh, wow' moment." Brooks puts the age of the tooth conservatively at 1.5 million years.

Brooks can't wait to return to that site, north of Ishango on Lake Edward, 2,000 miles from the coast of the Indian Ocean. But it is the most remote place she's worked. There are strange diseases and an uneasy political climate. It's the sort of place, she said, "where a letter from a famous person can get you through, and without it you can get shot . . . And what about kids?" she trails off.

Nevertheless, one can imagine the scene. On a bluff overlooking the hippopotamus-infested Semliki River, Brooks has made camp. Although there are no real roads, her husband has made yet another successful run in the truck, while his daughter has just quietly aced the practice test for the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Nearby her younger brother plays with native children, chattering easily in their language.

In the foreground, leaning over a pit, Brooks looks pensively at her latest sample of volcanic ash and wonders if she will discover remains of the oldest human known to man. Behind her, tacked to a tree, is a flag with a blue and white world insignia. It says SWG .