For a time, I kept a page from an issue of People magazine in my office. It showed pictures of four or five couples attending parties or sporting events. All the couples were famous, but the only one I clearly remember was Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange. I remember one other thing: All of the women had had a child out of wedlock.

You can probably come up with your own list of candidates. In fact, a student of the rich and famous could probably tick off 20 names without really trying. If you broadened the list to include ordinary people, you might be able to come up with even more names -- and I'm not talking about teen-age girls who happen to find themselves in what used to be called "a family way." I am talking instead of mature single women who either choose to become pregnant or, having become so, choose to have the baby.

The reason I saved that page from People is that it came out around the time that Reagan administration officials, especially Education Secretary William Bennett, were touting "values" as a panacea for every social ill. Specifically, it was being said that the one sure cure for the epidemic of unwed teen-age mothers was not sex education but old-fashioned morality: Don't do it and you won't get pregnant.

There is an unassailable logic to that prescription, but it begs the question -- or at least part of it. The trouble with defining a problem as exclusively moral has to do with its absolute nature, how it is supposed to apply to everyone. Take crime. Robbery is robbery, and it is not supposed to matter if the robber is a spoiled rich kid out for thrills or an impoverished father attempting to feed his kids. A crime is a crime because there is a victim.

But look what happens when you talk of single motherhood only in moral terms and ignore economics and age. After all, it's one thing for Jessica Lange to have a baby out of wedlock, quite another for a ghetto teen-ager to do the same. While everything we know proclaims the value to the child of the traditional family, the fact remains that Lange -- or a middle- class woman of some means -- is perfectly capable of raising a child by herself.

The issue, then, is not just a moral one. The children of affluent single mothers are not likely to concern us. They are not likely to become wards of the state, and they are not any more likely to become criminals than other children are. They may have emotional problems not much different from those of children whose parents have been divorced. The issue, then, is not single motherhood alone but single motherhood associated with other factors, notably poverty and, also, age.

But America speaks the language of equality. It will not say, as some European cultures do, that there is one moral standard for the affluent and another for the poor; that there is a difference, maybe even a moral one, between being a single mother who is both mature and affluent and one who is young and poor. Instead, the Great Moralists of Washington and elsewhere insist on a single standard as if morality and only morality were the issue. It is not. The consequences of it are.

Take, for instance, the case of Liz Walker. She is the unmarried 36-year-old Boston anchorwoman who decided to have a baby. Walker's case is complicated by the fact that she is black and therefore, allegedly, a role model. "At a time when we struggle in our community with teen-age pregnancy and unwed motherhood . . . this is precisely the wrong kind of signal to send," said a Boston minister, the Rev. Earl Jackson. "What she is doing is wrong."

Let's leave aside the assertion about the influence of role models and concentrate on the condemnation: "What she is doing is wrong." Why? Would Walker be "wrong" if she adopted a child? If that's not the case, then does the fact that she had sex make her wrong? That cannot be. Few people nowadays expect a 36-year-old woman not to have a sex life. Is Walker "wrong" because she will be unable to cope with a child? Not likely. On a salary of $500,000 a year, coping ought to be a breeze -- a nurse, a nanny and even a cook. Is it "wrong" for the child? It's not the optimum situation -- Walker would admit that -- but "wrong" is not the right word here. Whatever the child may lack, piano lessons will not be it.

Of course, there is such a thing as morality, but the concept has never been a static one. We no longer believe in the morality of torture, and, increasingly, we tend not to make moral judgments about mature single mothers. The word morality has little meaning when applied to all women under all circumstances. In the case of women who are both mature and affluent, the "victim" is missing. That is not the case, though, with young poor women. That set of circumstances produces two primary victims and a secondary one -- the mother, the child and society, which must provide for both.

The problem with yelling "morality" or "values" when it comes to such social problems as teen-age motherhood is that it reduces the issue to sex, not to the consequences of it. It holds certain people to a standard that others openly flout and that a good hunk of society ignores. And, in the name of a bogus equality, it sidesteps factors that really do matter -- income and age, for instance -- without pointing out (say, through education) that these factors really matter. The upshot is an effort to deal with the problem by not in fact dealing with the problem. That may not be immoral, but it sure isn't smart. ::