T HIS TOWN IS FULL OF STORIES LIKE

this: A small cadre of activists works day and night out of a basement, its members convinced that they can change history. They have very little money. Other people think they're crazy. They get out so little their friends think they're dead. Mostly, they live and breathe The Cause. But don't get the wrong idea. They're not serving Molotov cocktails down at the National Woman's Party.

The, uh, Woman's Party? Something new? No, the National Woman's Party is something old. It was founded by Alice Paul in 1913 to fight for women's suffrage, but for the last 64 years its members have been working tirelessly for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. That's right. The ERA is not a '70s phenomenon. It was written by Ms. Paul in 1923 and first put before Congress that year. It almost made it in 1982 . . . almost. So close, and yet so short. Three states short to be exact.

Since then, there hasn't been much partying at the party. The members had to go underground in 1974, moving from the main floor to the basement of the Sewall-Belmont House on Constitution Avenue. (The upstairs is now a museum, and the garden outside is rented out for Capitol Hill parties and wedding receptions.) And the party is fairly private now, too. There are only two full-time employes and a part-timer keeping the flame alive.

Since the great ERA campaign of the '70s, the National Woman's Party has been in a holding pattern, according to its president, Elizabeth Chittick, whose age is a party secret. "There comes a time when you realize you should not waste your time and energy if you can't do it," she says. "But somebody has to keep the ERA alive. We are the catalyst that has kept it going." Chittick has a no-nonsense determination that makes you believe this all won't be in vain. "In the Senate we have all the votes except two," she says. "It will be part of the platform of the Democrats {in '88}, as it has been since 1944. It was part of the Republican platform from 1940 . . . until Ronald Reagan. Yes, I think it's going to be an election issue."

Chittick is a former stockbroker and IRS revenue officer who retired from the Treasury Department in 1972 to come to Washington to work for passage of the ERA. She was elected president in 1975 and will be hosting her fifth, and the party's 27th, National Meeting on October 17 at its headquarters.

As ever, the lead subject will be the ERA. And if it doesn't pass this year, well, like England, there will always be a National Woman's Party. ::