On a snowy evening in February, beneath the chandeliers of the Blue Room in the Shoreham Hotel, Marian Wright Edelman rose to the lectern. With her cropped black hair and stark black tunic over a high-collared white blouse, she might have been a preacher rising to the pulpit. She had been late, and she hates to be late, so she was agitated and apologetic. But the capacity crowd at a meeting on early childhood sponsored by the National Governors' Conference waited patiently for her to arrive, waited for Lynda Johnson Robb's warm introduction of the woman she called an old friend, a woman, she said, "whose counsel is most widely sought on raising healthy, whole children."

They waited to hear her say what perhaps they already knew, that "for 13 million children in rich America -- 1 child out of 5 -- sickness, hunger and homelessness are becoming a way of life."

As her glasses moved in a steady motion from face to head to hand, Edelman's tongue ran over the bad news about children in America like Demosthenes caressing pebbles: "A black infant born in Chicago is more likely to die in the first year of life than an infant born in Cuba or Costa Rica."

What she did not say publicly is where she places the blame, but in her mind the shadow of budget-cutting President Ronald Reagan looms large, like a Scrooge who has not reconciled his past and future ghosts. In a running interior dialogue, she challenges his vision: "How can you understand any ideology which so blatantly sacrifices millions of children?" she asks. "Is it . . . evil?"

"SHE'S AN UNBELIEVABLY successful advocate for children," says Rep. William Gray (D-Ill.), the chairman of the House Budget Committee, who is far from alone in his admiration. In 1974 Walter Mondale said Edelman was the smartest woman he'd ever met and would be his choice for a vice-presidential running mate (though as it happened a decade later, when Mondale had a vice-presidential candidate to pick, he chose Geraldine Ferraro instead). Others have called her the fastest talking woman in the United States and a human dynamo. A member of her staff says, "She's a samurai."

The scrapper's skill helped her to beat the odds against leaving her native Bennettsville, S.C. By the time she was in her late teens, she'd begun a life that has included hitchhiking in Europe, building fences in the Ivory Coast and attending Yale Law School. Few moments along the way took her aback: One was finding herself the only black and the only woman to take the law board exams at Emory University in 1960. Another was her first night in Mississippi, in 1961, when she rode with Medgar Evers to Greenwood and watched police with dogs attack defenseless people, "some old, some with canes." When she walked up the courthouse steps, only to be pushed to the ground, she decided at that moment to practice law in Mississippi. In 1965, she became the first black woman ever admitted to the Mississippi bar.

Edelman's concern for children was cultured in Mississippi, where, as an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, she helped set up Head Start preschool programs across the state. By the time she arrived in Washington in 1968, she was convinced that children were the only group in America without a voice. To become that voice she founded the Children's Defense Fund, which she has run as president since 1973.

She waves aside any suggestion, though, that there's anything unusual or noteworthy about any of these aspects of her life, even the $228,000 MacArthur Prize awarded her last year. "My goodness," says Edelman, now 46, as she contracts her forehead over wide, astonished eyes, "there's nothing extraordinary . . . I'm just doing what any ordinary person . . . ought to do . . . People like to personalize things."

She hates to personalize things, she hates to give interviews, she hates to talk about herself. "What you want," says the voice, "is to have people talk about children."

Talking about children is something she does with extraordinary skill, and that very skill pushes her into the spotlight she abhors. Her name appears constantly in the press attached to figures, proposed legislation and opinion pieces relating to children.

Still, she fights it, remaining determinedly private. And that bothers a lot of people who work with her. Her persistent quest for anonymity "sometimes makes me a little crazy," confesses Evelyn Lieberman, public affairs director at the Children's Defense Fund.

The key to that abiding sense of privacy -- and to much else in Edelman's personality -- is found in the character of her Baptist minister father and the good works of her mother. Explains her older sister, retired Washington educator Olive Covington: "We were never allowed to do anything in church, sing or play the organ or whatever, that somebody else could do." Personal recognition was not important -- a characteristic that spills over today in Edelman's ability to work behind the scenes and to be indifferent to glory. "She could care less," says her sister. "She doesn't give a damn who gets the credit."

EDELMAN SUBSCRIBES to a Trojan horse theory of economics, which holds that the administration's prescription for balancing the budget is a ruse, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings "solution" a political tool to achieve deep ideological changes in our society. "There's no other rational explanation for this president," she says, charging that poor families and children have lost $10 billion since 1980 and stand to lose $6 billion more in the 1987 budget. "The first year people said, well, he didn't know what the impact would be. He didn't know there would be hungry people, homeless people . . . rising infant mortality rates . . . The things he advocates for are harmful . . . I think it is taking us down a very dangerous course that is reestablishing an apartheid in this nation that we have struggled for decades and centuries to overcome."

Some "profamily" advocates, ideological adversaries of Edelman who generally oppose government spending on social programs , agree with Edelman's view that the American family is under attack. Says Mark Souder, the minority staff director of the House Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families: "Conservatives talk a lot, we have general principles, but we often don't have the data . . . Most conservative activists are into defense and security. It's easier to stand outside and throw bricks. But how do you relate capitalism to the inner city? . . . Nobody really has a counterweight to Marian Wright Edelman."

Jerry Regier, head of the Family Research Council, would like to create one. He would like to make his organization the conservative equivalent of the Children's Defense Fund, create a profamily program to counter Wright's liberal vision. But he may not have to do that. The two camps recently have found common ground on many issues, such as prenatal health care and the tax structure, which both see as punitive to families. Strengthening their areas of agreement may become the basis of a curious, forceful new alliance. "Can we lower our flags long enough to sit down and talk together?" asks Regier.

Edelman says yes. "Until recently a lot of children's people have been very fragmented, but Mr. Reagan's threat, they finally understood, was so massive that strength came not in isolation, but in unity . . . You know, former representative John Rousselot, who votes against us on many issues, helped us save the Child Welfare Reform Act of 1980 that Mr. Reagan wanted to repeal. I agree with many of the concerns of the profamily movement . . . I believe that searching out of common ground is the order of the '80s."

The issue that now tests Edelman's genius for galvanizing disparate support is the epidemic of teen-age pregnancy and the Children's Defense Fund campaign to prevent it. During two weeks in late January and early February, weeks that she said were "pretty typical," Edelman consented to a series of interviews, hoping that the resultant article would focus attention on the problem. To make time available, she was often up at 4:30 a.m. so she would have time to write before she fixed breakfast for her three sons, Joshua, Jonah and Ezra.

On one of those days, in her C Street NW office at the foot of Capitol Hill, rain, snow and sleet pelted the windows, while Edelman, in elegant dark clothes, coiled like a spring in her chair. Her feet, shod in stylish boots, tapped restlessly, pushing away from the intrusive tape recorder.

The voice, now without a trace of the South left in it ("except my kids tell me I speak in a total dialect at home") came in a rapid staccato, weaving southern memories into present realities. "We never considered ourselves poor. My father never made more than $3,000 a year. When he died . . . he had holes in his shoes. And we laugh now: If we ever asked him if he had any money, he said he didn't have any change, and we thought he just had a big bill . . . But that man, when he died, had two kids in college and one in divinity school. I was 14. He died the week before Brown v. Board of Education came down, and every morning he'd say, 'Maybe it's going to be today' . . .

"The last thing he said to me before he died was, 'Don't let anything get between you and your education.'

"My mother and father raised five children and took in foster children -- I've had 14 foster brothers and sisters. They were a team, she the backbone. They built the church together . . . when they'd run out of bricks, it was she who'd go out and drum up the next 200. She played the organ, visited the sick, started a little business . . . I was very struck two years ago when she died. An old white man in town asked me what I did. I realized I do exactly what my mother did, but I just do it on another scale."

WHEN MARIAN WRIGHT married Peter Edelman in the summer of 1968, the bride's side and the groom's side brought their separate griefs. Since her days at Spelman College in Atlanta, Marian Wright had been close to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., murdered that April; Peter Edelman had been an assistant to Robert Kennedy, murdered that June. It was a marriage against the odds in a back yard in Virginia, one of the first interracial weddings in the Old Dominion, performed by a rabbi and Marian Wright's old friend from Yale, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr.

The union of South and North, black and white, Christian and Jew had symbolic as well as personal promise to many who knew the couple. But that "astonished" Marian Wright Edelman. "My goodness," says Edelman, "you marry a person, not a symbol."

Out of public view, Edelman runs a busy household in an old brown stucco house on a quiet street in Cleveland Park, where the two strong traditions of Baptist and Jew -- "Peter comes from a family of rabbis" -- blend to make their own unique family life, including what Edelman calls "Baptist bar mitzvahs" in the back yard. Now, with children in their teens, it means fewer evenings out, more "hanging around to see what the kids are doing."

Edelman does have concerns, though, about the impact on her children of middle-class life, with all its choices. "It's a very complicated world, and I worry a lot . . . When I was growing up, there was no real division between my parents' work and their children. I mean, I went everywhere with them. I visited the sick, I made parishioner visits."

The world she evokes in memory is small-town, close-knit, religious -- where rituals of everyday life, like Saturday night baths and Sunday services, gave structure to children's lives -- the kind of place also often conjured up from America's past by Ronald Reagan.

Thinking perhaps of her mother and the "grit" of other women in her past, Edelman said, "Do you know, for two years in a row Mr. Reagan tried to repeal virtually every children's program, as well as to cut the money? We decided we could lose the money, but if we lost the framework of the laws, we might take decades, if ever, to get them back. So we held on . . . They knocked some shingles off, but basically there is a federal presence."

IT'S THE FUTURE Edelman and Reagan are battling for. "Well, I can't come to grips with it . . . Is his an ideology which really believes that private charity should substitute for public justice?"

The Children's Defense Fund is the instrument by which Edelman strives to strengthen public justice -- and the place in which she carries on her parents' work. With a staff of 63 and an annual budget of more than $4.6 million -- all derived, Edelman emphasizes, from nongovernmental sources -- the fund has become, in the words of CDF board member Vernon Jordan, "the dominant child rights organization. It's powerful, respected, prestigious."

Exactly what the fund is remains, like Edelman herself, hard to pin down. Staff members of the fund lobby to pass, or these days preserve, laws that protect children. Annual data books and a budget analysis are published and distributed to reporters and legislators. The fund also has five state offices.

"No armor gets rusty here," says Paul Smith, the fund's research director. In a small back room where "facts" are piled so deep they seem likely to bury him, Smith, in an open-necked pink shirt, talks candidly about his boss. "Marian's management technique is to get you into a fight even she wonders if you can win . . . but you don't know what she's talking about until you read voices of the 19th century," referring in part to Tolstoy and Sojourner Truth, two of Edelman's early heroes. "We're basically asking for what Charles Dickens asked for. This is a Victorian organization. Marian's impulse is not so much legal or political as moral. That has no real place in modern consciousness."

Staff members say Edelman is very supportive if somebody is in personal trouble (she visits the hospital, sends flowers, always understands if there's a problem with the kids), but cool if work isn't up to her own very high standards. Says Jim Weill, program director: "Marian is not a perfect human being; a certain amount of staff time goes into dealing with her strengths and weaknesses . . . but there is such respect for her here that people would like her strengths known . . . The work is incredibly satisfying."

It's said that when Mondale suggested her as a possible running-mate in 1974, the question of her accepting was brought up at a CDF staff meeting. Quite unconsciously she put on her dark glasses, as if to shield her privacy before answering with an emphatic no. Since that time, her name has come up other times as a possible choice for Cabinet posts or judgeships. In her office, she responded to those possibilities without sunglasses but in a firm voice:

"I have absolutely no interest in public office. I'm doing in life what I think I was cut out to do. I'm an instinctive outsider and I think that there are more people who can do government jobs well than can do what I do well. Can you write that? Can you say, 'She has no ambition'?"

One way Edelman the "outsider" has played the game of the '80s so astutely is to learn to speak in terms of costs and benefits. "But," she says, turning again to Reagan, "he's changed the assumptions . . . Why do I have to justify in cost-effective terms feeding a hungry child? Some things are inherently right to do . . . If you can spend a little money and keep a child alive, there's nothing to debate about in a decent society."

The decency of that society is now being further tested by the explosive phenomenon of children having children. In response, the fund is launching a nationwide media campaign.

In late February, at a second annual CDF-sponsored convention on teen-age pregnancy at the Washington Hilton, Edelman held a press conference. "Three thousand teen-agers a day get pregnant," she said, "and the majority of them are white." It is neither a ghetto problem nor a new problem, she says; the difference is that "20 years ago teen-agers tended to get married. It was still possible for them to support themselves and a young family." Now the risk is that teen-age mothers, especially poor and minority mothers, will remain single and become trapped in poverty.

"We can no longer afford to whisper," Edelman says. And the fund's media blitz will shout on buses and subways, in schools and churches and in TV spots. Edelman means to get everyone involved, but says "community effort is not enough." Turning again to what the administration is doing, she says, "They're preaching chastity. Period . . . Poverty and joblessness are at the core of this problem . . .

"What we have now," she says, "is a new set of beatitudes . . . It is more blessed to judge the poor than help them . . . to penalize the poor who work . . . to let banks rather than farmers' children inherit the earth."