So many men.

The doors to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives open, and in they come. There's Dan Rostenkowski, the one with the pinkie ring. There's Newt Gingrich and his fabulous silver hair. There's Dick Gephardt, looking and moving more and more like a carving on Mount Rushmore. There's George Brown, the one with the cigar butt in his mouth.

So many men, so many suits. Dark suits. Solid suits. Blue suits that look gray, gray suits that look blue. There's Tom Foley -- he's in one, and Bob Michel, and Steny Hoyer, and Fred Grandy, and Dick Durbin, and dozens, make that hundreds, more.

So many suits, so many white shirts. And dark ties. And five o'clock shadows, And short haircuts. And loosening jowls. And big, visible ears.

So many, many men.

Sometimes in the House, a dullness settles over the place, even when the members come streaming in to cast votes and spend a few minutes roaming the aisles. What had been a room so quiet as to command whispers from spectators in the visitors' gallery now becomes filled with the sounds of hellos, of backslaps, of aging bodies settling into brown leather chairs, of laughter, of nonstop yammering. It gets loud, but even at full roar the sound is low in pitch, an indistinguishable rumble, a monotonous chorus of tubas and bassoons. The sight of this is no more varied either: The suits, the faces, the ears, the eyebrows, all blur until the spectators, who had been sitting forward in anticipation of something momentous happening, now begin to settle back, gazing down phlegmatically upon the scene as if it were a TV screen an hour after the last program has ended. And still the members continue to pour through the doors -- gray, grayer, grayest -- until the moment when, emerging into this humidor, comes a surprise:

The color red.

It is Susan Molinari, a first-termer from New York, who drives around town with her congressional membership ID on her dashboard and the soundtrack to "Thelma and Louise" in the cassette player.

Now, turquoise. It is Barbara Boxer, who, in an eloquent speech before the vote on the Persian Gulf War recited the lyrics of a song called "From a Distance" ("From a distance you look like my friend even though we are at war/ From a distance I just can't comprehend what all this fighting is for"), causing one female congressional staffer to say, "Isn't that disgusting? You want to smack her."

Now, paisley. It is Jill Long, who made an equally eloquent speech last fall, hers about how a male colleague had made suggestive comments to her while they were waiting to vote. "It was not too long ago that a colleague of mine complimented me on my appearance and then said that he was going to chase me around the House floor," she said. "Because he was not my boss, I was not intimidated. But I was offended, and I was embarrassed."

Now comes Marcy Kaptur, who has been doing research on the meager history of women in Congress; and Barbara Kennelly, the most powerful of the congresswomen, who decided it would be smart to take up golf again after she was appointed to the Ways and Means Committee; and Rosa DeLauro, who has a guest book in her office in which a visitor thought it would be funny to sign himself in as Dick Hurtz of 131 Penis Drive; and Pat Schroeder, who likens herself and her female colleagues to little more than "mascots."

Through the doors the women keep coming, but for only so long. Of the 435 members of the House of Representatives, 29 are women, which means that if Congress is a gray flannel suit, the women of Congress are no more than a handful of spots on the lapel.

Now comes Louise Slaughter, in the same bright orange jacket she was wearing a few months before on the day it was her turn to preside over the House. That was the day she stood at the speaker's podium, framed by the giant American flag that hangs behind it. It was the day she banged the gavel, looked out at her colleagues and saw Dick Durbin making his way up the aisle.

"Madam Chairwoman," he said as he got closer, laughing. "We're getting telephone calls. You're going to have to come down from there. You're clashing with the flag."

SEVERAL YEARS BACK, A MALE MEMBER of Congress showed up on the floor in a yellow suit. "Go home. Change," House Speaker Tip O'Neill is said to have told the man. And the man did exactly that.

Louise Slaughter, of Rochester, N.Y., didn't get down from the podium. She just laughed along with Durbin, a bell rising from the bassoons, and stayed where she was, presiding for the moment over an institution in which every female member is officially called "gentlewoman," and informally called lady, gal, or, every so often, something worse.

This is Congress in 1992: a place somewhere on the continuum between the Flintstones and true enlightenment. "If you want to understand an institution, look at the year in which it was founded," says Marcy Kaptur, a fifth-term representative from Toledo, and so, for its women, Congress remains in many ways what it was 200 years ago: leather upholstery, dark wood walls, a place of many men, a lodge. Fraternity, above all, is the guiding code, which means every day can bring something for a woman to overlook. For instance: "She's a lovely lady" is how Rep. James Quillen, of Tennessee, describes Louise Slaughter. And Slaughter, a feminist who certainly understands the distinctions between lovely and smart and lady and woman, takes no umbrage because she is friendly not only with Quillen, but with everyone from Durbin, a generally liberal representative from Illinois, to Sonny Montgomery, of Mississippi, whom one woman lobbyist describes as "about as Neanderthal as you're going to get."

If there is any difference in the institution from its early days, it is that women are now firmly part of it. They are no longer a curiosity, as they were on the day a decade ago that Virginia Smith, then a representative from Nebraska, hurried from the beauty shop to the floor to vote, still in pink curlers. They no longer routinely face the crudest forms of sexism, the kind Pat Schroeder remembers facing two decades ago when she was appointed to the House Armed Services Committee and F. Edward Hebert, the committee chairman at the time, summoned her to his office. "He told me he had an adult room and an adultery room," Schroeder recalls. "I was offended by that, and then he said, 'The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, and I am the Lord. You'll do just fine on this committee if you remember that.' "

Congress is less crude than that now -- but the new, improved version is no model of equality. Rather, 75 years after the first woman was elected to its membership, females still find themselves clearly in the minority, still trying to be heard in a place that doesn't consider a woman's comment valid until it is repeated by a man, still straddling the line between token and true advancement.

Women currently hold 31 of the 535 House and Senate seats. That's less than 6 percent of the total and only 11 more seats than they held 30 years ago.

They hold only one leadership position, a chief deputy whip job -- held by Barbara Kennelly -- that was created specifically for a woman.

In closed-door caucuses, the issues they are most often associated with -- health, welfare, education, abortion -- are regarded as the softer issues as opposed to, say, defense or intelligence.

In the hallways, meanwhile, they can't help but notice that their workplace still fosters a culture of female lobbyists, visitors and trophy wives who teeter and click their way along, as if the best way to approach a congressman is on stiletto heels.

And when they are on the floor, they are keenly aware that if four, three, even two of them stand together, it is only a matter of time before a male colleague will wander over and ask what they're doing, often awkwardly, as if Congress were nothing more socially advanced than an eighth-grade dance.

"Invariably, if a group of women were talking, I will bet you that five members would come up," says Lynn Martin, who spent 10 years in the House before becoming secretary of labor. "We'd be talking and laughing, and it was, 'Oh my God, what are they up to?' . . . It always surprised me. I mean, what'd they think we were doing?"

"It does unnerve them," says Louise Slaughter. "Especially if we're looking serious. 'What are you up to?' 'Oh . . . nothing.' "

"They're in an institution that's male-dominated, whose traditions and customs are of the majority, which happens to be men," explains Ruth Mandel, director of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University. "So what they're experiencing are the political experiences of people in a very small minority, who are in many ways still seen as outsiders, who are not in the key leadership positions. Your influence, not to mention your power, is limited."

"Here," says Marcy Kaptur, referring to notes she is keeping for a book. "Since 1789, there have been 11,238 members of Congress, and of those, there have been, wait, let me just count them . . . 10, 11, 12 . . . 48, 49, 50 . . . 100, 101, 102 . . . 131 women. Total. And then, of those 131, you can cut it different ways. For example, those who served 10 years or more is 33. It's amazing to me -- the rarity of having women here at all, and then the rarity of women choosing to make it a career, a vocation, a place to spend a life."

"It's not revolutionary, it's evolutionary," Schroeder says of how things have changed for women since her arrival 20 years ago. "We get some appointments, we get some this, we get some that. But to think that women get any power positions, that we've become the bull elephants, that we're the kahunas or whatever, well, we're not."

On the other hand:

Not long ago, Schroeder was in the cloakroom with half a dozen men, killing time between votes, when the conversation turned to a joke about a man who decided he wanted to be a woman. He went away. Had a sex-change operation. Came back a she. Went to visit an old friend.

"Did it hurt when they cut open your chest for the breast implants?" the friend asked.

"Yeah," she said, "that cut hurt a lot. But it wasn't the worst."

"How about when they cut off your genitals?"

"Yeah, that hurt too. But it wasn't the worst cut either."

"So what was?"

"The cut in pay I took when I came back to work."

"Twenty years ago," says Schroeder, who told the joke and was pleased when everyone laughed, "they wouldn't have gotten it." "Twenty years ago," says Rep. William Lehman, who was in the cloakroom, "they wouldn't even have listened."

AMONG THE WOMEN IN CONGRESS, Louise Slaughter is arguably one of the most powerful. A 62-year-old native of rural Kentucky, she moved to western New York when she married and has represented the Rochester area in Congress since 1986. "She's sort of a combination of Southern charm and back-room politics, a Southern belle with a cigar in her mouth," says Jane Danowitz, executive director of the Women's Campaign Fund. Says lobbyist Amy Millman, "She's a Kentucky woman in a New York politician's clothing. Therefore, she has all the skills to be a success in this town."

In fact, she is. She is on the powerful Budget Committee. She is also on the very powerful Rules Committee, which is why, at the moment, she is looking at the very, very powerful Dan Rostenkowski.

More specifically, at his right ear.

Rostenkowski, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, has come before the Rules Committee to get his tax bill onto the House floor for a vote. Every bill, even Rostenkowski's, must pass through Rules for fine-tuning, which is why being appointed to Rules is such a big deal. The committee has 13 members who seem to stay forever. The chairman, Joe Moakley, has been there almost 20 years; James Quillen almost 30. They sit in a wide horseshoe arrangement with Moakley in the center, facing the witness head-on, and the other members curving out from there until finally, around the bend, way at the end, almost in the audience, is Slaughter, whose view of any witness is a profile: one eye, half a nose, half a mouth, an ear. From this vantage point, she waits her turn to ask questions. And waits. "By the time it gets around to me, they're all pulverized," she says of the witnesses. The hearing starts at 10 a.m. By 10:30, she still hasn't spoken a word.

This isn't an atypical situation in Congress, where new committee members tend to listen more than anything else. But what makes it worth noting here is that on nearly every congressional committee, women rank no higher in seniority than the indistinct middle and are often found way, way down at the end. Exaggerating this even further is the low number of women in Congress to start with, which leaves the committees with few women members at all. On every committee, men dominate. On Rules, Slaughter is the only woman of the 13 members. On Ways and Means, the count is two of 36; on Budget it is two of 37; on Appropriations it is three of 59; on Agriculture it is one of 45.

The effects of this can show up in any number of ways, but never were they more crystallized than last fall during Clarence Thomas's Supreme Court confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The most universally agreed-upon conclusion after that hearing: A woman on the committee would have made all the difference in the world.

Slaughter knows this as well as anyone. She was one of seven female House members who very publicly marched over to the Senate before the vote on the Thomas nomination and demanded to be heard. When Anita Hill was testifying, she spent the weekend watching the hearings on TV, stewing all the while over how bumbling the questioning was. So she knows in theory what a woman can add to a committee, and also in practice.

Last year, for example, Richard Darman, President Bush's budget director, was testifying before the Budget Committee about the administration's budget proposal when Slaughter got to question him for the first time. "Mr. Darman, I am new to the committee, and I want to be friends," she began in her very sweetest Southern voice. It is a voice that those who know Slaughter have come to know well, part of a persona that men seem automatically to feel comfortable around. "Maternal," is how Slaughter's friend, pollster Celinda Lake, describes it. "She'll say, 'honey,' and pat them on the back, and soon they'll be a cosponsor of the Freedom of Choice Act and think they've been talking about coal mines in Kentucky."

That's the voice Slaughter used on Darman, at least at first, when she said she wanted to be friends. Then she paused, smiled and went on, just a shade less sweetly: "I did, however, notice that in the budget you cut out the money for a measure I have worked on for three years, to educate homeless children." And then a little less sweetly: "It was about $7 million we had in there." And a little less sweetly: "And I guess I was particularly aggrieved since you have got $1.9 billion in there for a trip to Mars, and I was sort of hoping I could persuade you to rethink that idea since we have about a million homeless children in America who could use a little help with their education . . ."

Darman's response was to listen politely and whisper to his aides. In the end, not only was the $7 million for educating homeless children put back in, but the final budget signed into law contained an additional $18 million.

Another example: Earlier this year, during a closed-door caucus of the Budget Committee Democrats, the subject was a budget increase for the National Institutes of Health. It was, by various accounts, a typical caucus. The members -- 22 men and Slaughter -- sat at a table that had been furnished with a bowl of fresh fruit, clean pads of Budget Committee stationery and newly sharpened pencils, every one of the pencils positioned above its pad with its eraser facing the same direction. Behind the members were their aides, most of them women, with stacks and stacks of paperwork. While the aides sat, the members agreed fairly quickly to recommend an $800 million increase. Then one congressman began rambling a bit, talking about how he believed in helping the needy, how he collected money for them, how he did this, how he did that, and around the table pencils began to tap, eyes began to glaze, minds began to wander.

Then came Slaughter's turn to talk, and she suggested that while an $800 million increase sounded nice, maybe some of that money should be used specifically for research into women's health problems, such as breast cancer, or ovarian cancer, research that had been sorely lacking.

The initial reaction, according to Elaine Ryan, Slaughter's chief aide, was bewilderment. Slaughter's reaction to that was to press on, her tone in this instance seeming to change not by the sentence but by the word. "It was pretty insistent," Ryan remembers. "Stern. She was all alone at first, just making the pitch, looking at blank faces, and her tone and voice got more insistent." And more insistent as she told the men at one point to think of dying women in terms of a war, that the number of women who will be victims of breast cancer this year will roughly match the number of victims whose names are engraved on the walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. And then, as Ryan tells it, when Slaughter stopped talking, an amazing thing happened: The female aides sitting behind the congressmen began to applaud, and when they stopped, the congressman who had been rambling a few minutes before decided to speak again, this time telling a terribly sad story about breast cancer, about how his wife had fought it until she finally died. This time, no pencils tapped, no minds wandered. Instead, everyone in the room listened, and soon after that the men at the table agreed with Slaughter that of the $800 million increase, $500 million would be a reasonable amount to set aside for women's health research.

That is how that part of the bill read when it was passed by the Budget Committee, and later by the full House, leading Leon Panetta, the committee chairman, to acknowledge that on some issues men can have their heads in the clouds. "The bottom line is a lot of men who are on a committee are not going to be concentrating on issues affecting women," he said. "It's not out of spite, but frankly, that's why it's important to have people like Louise on a committee, to kick your pants and bring up your conscience on issues like these."

"We feel it," is Slaughter's explanation. Men can only awaken to certain things, she says, while women know them, either by instinct or by personal experience.

"Do I make a difference being the one woman on Rules?" she says, after she has waited most of the morning, in silence, to question Rostenkowski. "I do. Not today. But I do."

ROSA DELAURO IS NOT AMONG the most powerful members of Congress, but the way some people talk about her it's only a matter of time. They say she could become the first chairwoman in history of a major congressional committee. Or speaker. Or a senator. Or a national candidate. Only one thing could stop her, they say: not getting reelected this fall.

In fact, the question of a woman's electability is at the heart of every problem women face in Congress: They have to get there, and remain there, if they are ever to be the kind of force that runs committees, defines agendas and rules the day on votes. It helps them that in this year of such strong anti-incumbent sentiments, female candidates, even incumbents, are generally regarded as outsiders. Because of this, and because of a record number of open seats due to retirements and redistricting, early predictions are for a net increase of at least five women in Congress, maybe 10, possibly a few more.

Within those predictions, however, is an unmistakable sense of deja vu. While various women's groups are calling 1992 the year of the woman, that turns out to be what some of them called the last election year, the one before that, and several before that. One group is even going so far as to call this the beginning of the decade of the woman, but as Pat Schroeder points out, "I remember the '70s was the decade of the woman."

In other words, every time women have seemed poised to storm Congress in numbers big enough to make them a true force, something has come up. Their increases, though steady, have been in tiny increments. Already this year, the 14-year congressional career of Maryland's Beverly Byron came to an end when she lost her primary, and, as for the fall, even the giddiest forecasters expect a number of close races, including, perhaps, the race in Connecticut for the district that is DeLauro's.

On paper, DeLauro seems to be the model of what female candidates have been evolving into for years. Once the women of Congress were little more than a collection of widows who inherited their dead husbands' seats. Then came women who got to Congress on their own, but not until later in their lives. "Babes in the woods," Jane Danowitz, of the Women's Campaign Fund, calls this group, women whose background was in civic organizations, or the PTA, who needed to be trained in the most basic specifics of running for office. "How to dress so you're taken seriously," Danowitz explains. "No dangle earrings, wear long sleeves, don't wear four-inch heels." Now there is a new wave of women who are choosing politics as a career, a wave that DeLauro is helping to define.

She is, in a word, intense. Officially, she is a first-termer, but in truth she knows Washington, and politics in general, as well as any freshman member in years. She spent seven years as the chief aide to Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd. She spent a year as the executive director of EMILY's List, a national fund-raising organization that channels money exclusively to female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights. Her mother has been a New Haven alderman for nearly three decades, her father was one as well, and her husband is pollster Stan Greenberg, whose client of the moment is presidential candidate Bill Clinton.

That is DeLauro's background, and in 1989 she decided to use it to run for Congress. Greenberg did the polling, EMILY's List helped provide her with some of the $1 million she eventually raised, and, to almost no one's surprise, she won. However, she didn't win by much. Even though she was the Democratic candidate in a Democratic district, and her opponent raised less than half the money she did, the vote spread was a mere 4 percentage points.

In the final days of the campaign, in fact, the race seemed close enough for DeLauro to have to decide whether to refocus her campaign on a single issue. The issue was abortion, and Greenberg assured her that if she did that she would win. DeLauro, however, decided against it because she didn't want to arrive in Congress with a reputation as an abortion rights candidate, or a so-called woman's candidate, or any other kind of candidate who would be pegged as beholden to a single issue. "I worry about marginalizing women in the institution," she would explain later. "It's a very competitive place, and what you need to do is build coalitions, and since there are 29 women who don't think alike, you build coalitions among women and you build coalitions among men. If you sit there and say, 'I'm a woman, we're in the minority here,' then you're never going to get anywhere in this body."

And so, with that in mind, she tiptoed to a win, and now it is two years later, and the opponent she faced last time, Tom Scott, will be her opponent again.

"Listen to this," he says one afternoon. He puts a cassette into a tape player and plays back a recording of a radio debate he had with DeLauro that, to him, was one of the most telling moments of the campaign. The debate was tense from start to finish, and when the subject turned to abortion rights, which DeLauro favors and Scott opposes, the room seemed to momentarily explode.

"Why don't you calm down," Scott is heard saying at one point, interrupting DeLauro's attempt to explain her position.

"Why don't you relax?" DeLauro shoots back.

"Put a sock in it for a minute," Scott shoots back to that, and on it escalates until the radio host finally cuts them off and goes to a commercial.

Now, listening to the debate once again, Scott tries to imagine how he would have behaved if DeLauro had been a male. "I probably held back more than I would have if it was a man," he decides. "That's not condescending, it's my upbringing. I'm a gentleman. Plus, I knew my mother was listening."

Thus a campaign is defined: liberal versus conservative, pro-abortion versus antiabortion, and, unmistakably as its undercurrent, female versus male.

Neither Scott nor DeLauro would agree with this interpretation; each claims that voters are sophisticated enough not to make gender a factor. But ask any pollster: The perceptions, and by extension the expectations, of a female candidate remain substantially different from those of a male. Ask Stan Greenberg's partner Celinda Lake. "They are outsiders," she says of how female candidates are perceived. "They are not good on national defense, better on issues such as education, about even with men on the economy. It's okay for a woman to be tough, but only if she has come through personal tragedy or if she's tough not overall but on a certain issue. That's 'passion.' That's 'feisty.' They like feisty. They don't like tough."

That's the pollsters' take on this, the abstract one built from questionnaires and focus groups in which participants are asked questions such as: "There's a knock at the door. Rosa DeLauro walks in. What's she like?" Or, "You send your friend to the airport to pick up Rosa DeLauro. Your friend has never seen her. How would you describe her?"

Then there are the true-life reactions, which show up in any number of ways every weekend when DeLauro returns to her district.

She goes to a suburban grocery store to meet with anyone who wants to talk to her, and as soon as she arrives, a line forms of shoppers holding boxes of oatmeal, jars of apple jelly, packages of chicken thighs. "One of the things I admire about her is that she is a woman," says Mary Lou Cretella. "I think women are more in touch with the issues that matter to me, the humanitarian issues." Behind Cretella is Gary Chomic. He is a new father who has come for diapers, but he gets in line too, silently rehearsing what he wants to say until he and DeLauro are face to face. "Everything needs help," he begins nervously. "Everything." DeLauro nods, waiting for him to go on, but he simply tells her she's doing a good job, shakes her hand and walks away, wondering as he goes why he didn't tell her more. "I met Lowell Weicker once," he says. "It was easy to tell him what was on my mind. I don't know. I'm a man, so I can approach a man. And with a woman, I guess I'm a little shy. All men are. It's like dating."

She goes to a restaurant for a late-night snack, where the same kind of thing happens again. This time it involves a 24-year-old woman named Sara Hoffman, who is standing by the bar with a beer. She has just come from her job in Yale University's sports information department, a job, she says, that sometimes makes her feel "a little insecure, a little inadequate. It's so male-dominated." All day long, she takes phone calls from people who assume she's the secretary, who imply she doesn't know much about sports, who ask to speak to one of the men in the office. Now, out with some friends, whom should she see but the very model of a woman succeeding among men. She elbows her friends. "Hey, isn't that Rosa DeLauro?" she says. Now DeLauro stands near her, waiting for a table, and Hoffman whispers, "What should I say? I want to say something, but I don't want to sound stupid." Finally, she says, "Hi," and DeLauro says, "Hi," and then a table opens up and that's that. "I wanted to ask her what it's like to be a woman in politics," Hoffman will say later. "I'll bet there are days she goes home thinking, 'It was a hard day, and I wish there were more women there.' But I didn't ask her. I don't know why. I guess I was a little intimidated. Women in that kind of position seem intimidating to me because they're so strong." She thinks about what she would have asked if DeLauro were a man. "I don't know. I wouldn't have asked him how it feels to be a man in Congress because it's not an issue."

Everywhere DeLauro goes, little things like this occur, reminders that women are still perceived and treated differently, that the climate of politics is still primarily male. She goes to a senior citizens' dinner, and a man named Charlie says, "The one thing with women, they're more likely to be sympathetic than a man, which could be a bad thing. They have to control their feelings." She goes to Connecticut's annual Democratic dinner, and as a thousand people listen to her and others speak about the importance of the fall election, a man named John, one of the state's bigger contributors to the party, stands in a doorway, staring at a woman in a low-cut dress. "Please move to your seat, sir," a waiter tells him, and John scowls. "I wanted to tell that broad over there she has nice breasts," he says, "but it looks like I'm not going to get the chance."

So go visits home. Stan Greenberg says that his wife's only accommodations to gender-based perceptions are that she wears tamer earrings to work and wore a black suit to her swearing-in. He also says that she will win reelection by a sizable margin this fall, and when she does maybe she'll relax a bit and realize she is in Congress for the long haul. Maybe so, but for now, on a Sunday morning, she's off to a church to hand out some plaques.

What could be more innocuous? Except that just as she is being introduced, a woman in the audience begins shrieking incomprehensibly, a piercing sound that carries onto the stage, into the microphone and through the speakers. "Please," someone can be heard saying to her, and then someone else growls, "Get her out of here," and, in the background, DeLauro looks on, as confused by this as everyone else. A policeman arrives, but the woman sinks to the floor, saying she won't move until she sees a priest. A priest comes over to quiet her and ends up asking her to leave. At that point, she stands. Her face is absolutely contorted. She is wearing a pin that reads, "Abortion Stops a Beating Heart"; the divisive issue of the last campaign has returned. The priest escorts her outside and DeLauro gets on with the business at hand, giving out the plaques. Outside, however, the woman and the priest continue talking, and as they do it becomes clear that DeLauro, as much as abortion, is at the center of her anger. "She's speaking! She's speaking right now!" the woman hisses. "I didn't know she was going to be here," the priest tells her, but the woman says, "You knew!" and walks out to the street, where she begins pacing back and forth, muttering DeLauro's name, nothing else, just "Rosa DeLauro," over and over, so vehemently that she starts to spit.

"I THINK ONE OF THE REASONS I'VE never married and had children is because of the guilt I would feel taking time from them," Marcy Kaptur says one day. "To me, one of the great achievements of my life has been not wounding a child. To raise children in this job? You can count on one hand the number of women in this job who have."

Like Rosa DeLauro, Kaptur, 45, also envisions Congress as a career. Now in her 10th year, she thinks her chances of enduring are improved by her status in life. "I'm not a widow, and I don't have children, and I don't have a husband," she explains, "and that tells me I have better odds of being able to stay."

This explanation is based on something that Kaptur has learned from her book research: that family circumstances affect a congresswoman's tenure and rise far more than they affect a congressman's. Women, she says, tend to arrive in Congress later than men, usually waiting to run until after their children are grown. And when a family shows signs of falling apart, whether from death or illness or anything else, it is women, more than men, whose remedy is to leave.

"We are care-givers all the way," Kaptur says, and other congresswomen agree.

"My youngest was in seventh grade," Barbara Kennelly says, recalling how her husband had to suddenly take over much of the parenting of their youngest child when she first came to Washington. "I'd been the one who took care of everything, went to the teachers' meetings, everything. And I left. Neither was very happy about it. Don't get me wrong. They're proud of me. But . . . it worked out. It could have not worked out."

"I'm remembering a story," Lynn Martin says of her early days in Congress. "The first time I was in Ronald Reagan's office, I called Caroline, my 9-year-old, and I said, 'I have just been in with President Ronald Reagan.' And she said, 'Are you going to be here tomorrow for the car pool?' And I said, 'I have just been . . .' and she said, 'I heard you. Are you going to be here tomorrow for the car pool?' I mean, oh my Lord: 'I'm deciding the fate of the Western World and you're worried about a car pool?' And the answer was, 'Yes, I am.'"

"I think my family understands the people who sent me here have a great claim on me," Louise Slaughter says. But she also knows there have been times her family has resented this claim, that there exists an unavoidable tension between the roles of congresswoman and mother, and congresswoman and wife.

"It's been hard for our family to accept it, in many ways," says Bob Slaughter, Louise's husband. "I don't wish that Louise wasn't doing what she's doing. The problem is it's just such a totally consuming thing. But you'd never want it not to happen. It's so important."

Bob Slaughter is an easygoing 60-year-old man who quotes Emerson, who voted for Barry Commoner in the last presidential election, who reads any books on politics he can find and synopsizes them for his wife. He is now in his sixth month of retirement, which is to say he has some time on his hands these days, something his wife doesn't have at all. She sees him on weekends when she flies home. He sees her on weekdays when he turns on C-SPAN. They are at entirely different places in their lives.

They met 36 years ago at a motel pool in Texas. The night before, he had been out with a girl from Wisconsin, and while she had droned on, he had drunk too much and ended up on the lawn, first face-up looking at the dark sky, then face-down and sick. The next day, he struggled over to the pool, and there was Louise. She was from Kentucky. She had been a torch singer in college. She spoke to him in that wonderful voice of hers, and 10 months later they married. They moved to Rochester for Bob's career. They raised three daughters. One day, Bob and Louise tried to save a patch of trees that a developer wanted to cut down, and then Louise ran for the county council and then she ran for the New York State Assembly, and then she became a member of Congress.

Meanwhile, her daughters grew up, often uncomfortable with the idea that their mother was a politician.

"Did you get my Christmas card?" she asked one of them last December.

"Well, I got the one from your office."

"Yeah, we sent out over 1,500 of those."

"Yeah? Do big donors get a personal note?"

Meanwhile, Bob spent a career working for Kodak and retired at the end of last year to the unfamiliar sensations of daytime in an empty house. "Let's say I'm downstairs doing some woodwork, working on a table. I can't think, 'Hey, I'm down here creating this great Chippendale table, and my wife's upstairs, and she's really going to appreciate it,' " he says. "I don't know. Now that I have the time to do these things, I find I'm not enjoying them like I thought I would, and the reason, I guess, is my family's not around."

And so he has come to Washington for a visit.

The drive takes him seven hours. He comes here a few times a year, usually to work on the small town house they own on Capitol Hill. He likes Louise to accompany him on the drive but she rarely does; seven hours is too long for her to be neither here nor there; she has too much to do. Usually, he drives and she flies, and, when he can time it right, he picks her up at the airport. This day she's due in just after lunch, which gives him time to stop by her office in the Longworth Building and then head to the cafeteria to get something to eat, nothing special, just something quick, he is thinking, maybe a bowl of greens and some mashed potatoes. He gets to the cafeteria. There is a guard.

"Members only," she says, blocking the entrance.

"Even if you're married to one?" he asks.

"Not unless she brings you in."

He starts to turn away, but someone who has overheard this escorts him in. He eats, hurries to the airport and returns an hour later with Louise, who immediately goes into her office followed by chief aide Elaine Ryan, who shuts the door. Bob takes a seat in the reception area. "I can go in there," he explains, "but the best I can do for her most of the time is stay out of the way." He sits for half an hour until the door opens, and then he goes in, only to find Louise on the phone. "Hey, Butler, what are you hearing?" she is saying.

"Butler Derrick. From South Carolina," Bob whispers. "He is one of the few class acts." He waits quietly. Louise smiles at him. He walks over to her desk. She hangs up.

"I've got a meeting," she says.

"Oh. Okay."

"You going to go home?"

"I guess," he says. "What are your plans for tonight?"

"I have a lot of work to do. Seven o'clock. Eight o'clock."

"You want to go out?"

"Whatever."

"Fix something in?"

"Whatever. Are you going to walk?"

"I guess."

"Well, here. Take a few newspapers. Here's a Newsweek. Take these. It's raining. You want an umbrella?"

"No, no. Call me," he says.

"I will."

That night, at dinner, he tells Louise that as much as he loves what she does, as important as it is, as proud as he is of her, there are times he can't help but feel left out, and she says, "Oh, Bob," and he says, "I do," and she says nothing, just looks at him, not so much with concern but with tenderness.

"You know who I think is terrific?" he says after a while. "Butler Derrick. He is such a gentleman. He is such a class act."

"Really," Louise says. "Well, I'll tell him you said so. He'll be thrilled."

"I told him myself," Bob says. "We were in the men's room . . ."

"Oh, Bob."

The next day, Bob spends most of the day at their town house while Louise goes from one meeting to another, all day long, never stopping, until 6 o'clock when she emerges from her office to find Bob waiting for her. He is there to escort her to a fund-raiser at Union Station for another House member. They walk down the hall together. It is one of those rare times when the hall is empty -- no aides, no lobbyists, no delegations, no swarms, no one at all except for a husband and wife, walking side by side. The wife is carrying Time, Congressional Quarterly, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and a book called Congress Against Itself. The husband is empty-handed.

"Here," he says, reaching over, "let me carry your books."

They get in the car. Tomorrow, he will drive back to Rochester. They turn onto First Street and glide by the Capitol.

"This place was so romantic when we first got here," he says.

"And this is my favorite view too," she says.

"And then we got to know the place."

"I still love it," she says. "I do."

"I know."

"I can't help it. It's in me."

"I know."

SIX YEARS AGO, LOUISE SLAUGHTER knew how the Capitol looked; now she knows how it feels. She has been in Congress long enough for an infatuation to turn into love and for love to turn into a desire to stay and stay. "I really like these people," she says of her colleagues. "I've never been rebuffed by any of them. I don't think they attach anything at all to the fact that I'm a woman. No, I have no complaints about my treatment here at all."

She says this and means it, which makes it a statement that can be considered either encouraging in its possibilities, or proof, once again, that love comes with blind spots.

In Congress, the truth is that women can preside, but they don't rule. Their percentage may be up to 6 percent, but as Pat Schroeder notes, there aren't many votes that swing on a 6 percent margin. There are some days when women seem to be making steady advances in Congress, but on most days it is monotonously, overwhelmingly, interminably male -- and that is why, among all the accommodations made for women over the years, one of the most treasured of all is a suite of offices off Statuary Hall. It is a place that all the women go.

Called the Lindy Boggs Congressional Women's Reading Room, it is some couches, some divans, some phones and a bathroom within hailing distance of the House floor. Men do come in from time to time -- there are stories that in past years women would bring in a male colleague who was being particularly stubborn on an issue, sit him down, surround him and talk, talk, talk to him until he was ready to see things like, well, a woman -- but for the most part, the room is intended for women only.

You can tell this from its design. The chairs aren't covered with leather but with a green linen damask. The carpet isn't deep blue but a pale salmon. The walls aren't dark wood but an uplifting beige. The artwork above the couch is of flowers. And then there is the most distinguishing feature of all, the rows and rows of photographs on the walls, photographs of every congresswoman who has ever served.

There is Jeanette Rankin, the first, who came to Congress in 1917, a 36-year-old from Montana with the melancholy expression of someone who had grown accustomed to being ignored. There is Clare Boothe Luce, who had one of the most famous names of all, and another woman with the unfortunate last name of Blitch. There is Barbara Jordan, with her strong face, and Bella Abzug, with her big hat. There is Ella Grasso of Connecticut, who became the nation's first woman governor elected in her own right, and Geraldine Ferraro, who might have been the vice president, and Elizabeth Holtzman, who is now running against Ferraro in New York for the U.S. Senate. The photographs go on and on, and only a cynic would wonder about the size of the room it would take to house photographs of all the men.

Most of the photographs are in the hallway, but those of the 29 current members are in the main sitting area, hanging in four neat rows along a curved wall. And while the photographs in the hallway are eloquent in their own way, it is these, the ones in the sitting room, that say more about what it is to be a woman in Congress.

These, after all, are the women who have gotten to Congress on their own; who comprise the largest number ever; who have at least a toehold on committees; whose opinions are, if not listened to, at least courted by many of the men; who will almost certainly increase their numbers this fall, and their visibility, and their clout. This is the group for whom things have never been better.

And yet:

Another vote.

This time it is a tax bill. It is being promoted as a tax-relief bill, but in fact it is a political bill through and through. If it passes, President Bush is certain to veto it. If it is vetoed, it can be used as an issue in the fall elections. So the point is to pass it, nothing more, and to that end the Democratic leadership has put one person in charge of making sure the votes are there, the one member who is part of both leadership and Ways and Means: Barbara Kennelly.

"What about a co-chair?" she says when David Bonior, the majority whip, tells her she will be the chief whip on the bill.

"You don't need one," he says, and off she goes.

Later, comparing the experience with others in her career, she will call it "the most intense of all." She does everything she can, everything there is to do. She assigns deputy whips to work on various members, and every time there is any kind of floor vote she is on the floor early, easing up to people, asking what they're inclined to do, making sure in every case to factor in whether they're having a problem with reapportionment, or facing a tough reelection, or dealing with any of the other things beyond heart and conscience that can determine how a member might vote.

Finally, the night before the vote, driving home late in the evening, Kennelly realizes the bill is going to fail. The votes aren't there. She has lined up a lot, but not enough. And so she passes this news on to Bonior and Dick Gephardt and Tom Foley, all of whom work the phones, swinging the vote their way.

In the end, they succeed. The bill passes. On the floor there are cheers; in Gephardt's office there is a small party; in Kennelly's office a handwritten letter arrives from David Bonior: "Barbara, you did a great job bringing the count over the top. Thanks."

Kennelly, though, knows better. She did a lot, but it was the final push from Foley and Gephardt that got the count over the top. It was a push from men to men, in other words, which has been the story of Congress since its very first day in existence. Men win votes, men lose votes, and women, though affected by votes, have mostly been along for the ride.

Who are the most powerful women in Congress, Kennelly is asked one day.

The question seems to surprise her.

"Why, none of us," she says.