WHEN BARBARA HONEGGER WENT PUBLIC FOUR YEARS AGO,

calling Ronald Reagan's "ERA alternative" program "a sham," she enjoyed instant, if brief, celebrity.

To feminists, Honegger, then special assistant to the deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights, was a courageous political appointee who blew the whistle on the Reagan administration's indifferent handling of women's issues.

To the Reagan White House, she was "a low-level Munchkin" with an exaggerated sense of her own importance.

Honegger's opinion piece in The Washington Post {"Reagan Has Not Fulfilled His Promise," Aug. 21, 1983} garnered a lot of media attention, though the spotlight's glare was not always flattering. After her rather rambling appearance on ABC's "Nightline," for example, more than a few people began to regard her as something of a flake. A picture of her in an Easter Bunny costume, posing in a White House get-well photo for press secretary James Brady, did little to alter this impression.

Honegger, who quit her Justice Department job after her article was published, dismisses such notions as "self-evidently untrue."

She faults the "misperceptions" of Sam Donaldson, who anchored the "Nightline" broadcast, and says she donned an Easter Bunny costume because it was Brady's favorite and she wanted to cheer him up. Besides, she notes, it didn't hurt then-White House Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver's credibility when he "frolicked in a gorilla costume" outside the Oval Office.

"I'm proud of what I did, and I know I did a good job," said Honegger, now 39. "In light of the current situation with Irangate, I'm very proud to be the first public resignation of conscience in this administration." (Alexander Haig, who resigned over policy disputes, might disagree.)

For a time, Honegger stayed on in Washington. An Arlington resident, she talked of entering Virginia politics and hinted at challenging either Rep. Frank Wolf or Sen. John Warner. She said she planned to write a book: "Immaculate Deception: Diary of a White House Mole." What she did do, instead, was join Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign as national coordinator for women.

These days, Honegger, a Stanford graduate who returned to her home state of California in mid-1984, says she is "focused completely on investigative journalism." Working out of her Pacific Grove home, she functions as a researcher, pulling together "bits and pieces in the current media" and then forming "hypotheses" on what has occurred.

"I do backgrounders for the press -- many of them unsolicited," says Honegger, who sees herself as providing an important service. Her special interests of late: the Challenger explosion and Irangate -- she says Reagan "effectively stole the election" from Jimmy Carter by cutting an arms deal with Iran in 1980 to delay the release of American hostages.

Honegger, who uses Barbara Britain as a pen name because "it's easy to spell, easy to remember, and I identify with Britain," says she supports herself through occasional stringer and lecture fees and also sells tapes of her guest spots on radio and television.

"California is a bit more laid-back than Washington, D.C., but I do miss it," says Honegger. As for future plans, she has not ruled out running for statewide political office someday. "I keep that door open."