THE ENGLISH conductor Sir Thomas Beecham once gave his definitive spinion on the role of women in orchestras.

"Well, I'm very fond of women, but in an orchestra if they're not good-T looking -- and often they're not and they always look worse when they're blowing -- it puts me off, while if they are good-looking it puts me off a damn sight more."

Two centuries before Sir Thomas (1879-1967) delivered that less-than-Jovian point of view, the French historian, Charles de Brosses, wrote about the famous teen-age girl orchestra that played under the direction of Antonio Vivaldi in the Conservatory of the Pieta in Venice:

"They are educated and maintained at the expense of the State, and their sole training is to excel in music. Thus they sing like angels, and play the violin, flute, organ, oboe, violoncello, and bassoon--in fact there is no instrument so big as to intimidate them. They are cloistered like nuns. They perform without outside help, and at each concert forty girls take part. I swear there is nothing prettier in the world than to see a young and charming nun, in a white frock, with a spray of pomegranate flowers over her ear, conduct the orchestra and give the beat with all the exactness imaginable."

By the time the status of women had deteriorated to the point at which Beecham delivered his remarks, it was a long climb upward for women with orchestral ambition. They were systematically excluded from the ranks of major musical activity even as the great conductors -- Toscanini, Muck, Monteux, Koussevitzky, Stokowski, Stock and Ormandy -- were shaping the great orchestras.

By most accounts, the first woman to break the barrier at a major American orchestra was Sara Feldman, who joined the Baltimore Symphony in 1936 as a violist. Orchestra members picketed outside the musicians union, carrying signs: "Unfair to Men." "But once I was in, I broke the ice," she said this week from her Baltimore home. "I was the queen bee, what do you mean? Everybody knew Sara Feldman, the first woman in the Symphony!"

Last week many of the women who now play in the National Symphony Orchestra delivered a frank appraisal of the status and presence of women in symphony orchestras today. Their consensus: Although remnants of discrimination remain, women have come a long way.

Take the example of Dotian Carter, NSO harpist for 12 years. "When I came into this orchestra, I was in labor," she said matter-of-factly.

"The Boston Symphony had invited me to audition. I wrote back and told them I was expecting a baby, but would be happy to audition before it was due. I never heard another word from them.

"At the NSO, the harp auditions were going to be Sept. 25, and I was expecting Sept. 14. They told me they could make no exceptions. I showed up at Constitution Hall nine months two weeks pregnant, and in labor. I asked them to hear me first, and very nervously they did. I played and went to the doctor's office, and a groan here immediately the labor stopped."

She had her baby two days later. But before she did, personnel manager Armand Sarro called to tell her she had a job. No questions about how she could work while she was caring for an infant? "Not a word," responded Carter. "And that says a lot for the NSO."

So does this, from Yvonne Caruthers, now in her fourth season as a cellist with the NSO, and mother of infant twins: "I played a concert at the Washington Cathedral a week before my babies were born. Everyone was so supportive. It was like the whole orchestra was having a baby. The management has just about bent over backwards for me."

But before you can take advantage of an orchestra's fine maternity policy, you've got to get hired. Here too, women have made major inroads in the past couple of decades. While today there are 23 women in the 102-member National Symphony, five years ago there were only 12, the same number as a decade ago. Figures gathered by the American Symphony Orchestra League show that the NSO is in line with the composition of other major orchestras in the country: the average was 25.8 percent women during the past five years. In the smaller regional and metropolitan orchestras, the percentages rise to around 45 and even over 50 percent. In Washington's other professional orchestras, in the Kennedy Center Opera House and the National Gallery, about half the players are women.

Things have not progressed equally in Europe, however, where women players are still a rarity. When the Berlin Symphony, one of the world's finest, visited Washington some years ago, NSO violinist Charlotte Davis recalled, "they made some remarks about all these women on the stage. 'We wouldn't have anything like that,' was their attitude."

Even if American women in music find it easier to get hired these days, they still run into barriers. A sampling:

* Women's instruments: "The harp is accepted as a woman's instrument," said Dotian Carter, explaining why she has faced little discrimination. But then, upon reflection, "That's a kind of discrimination right there...In fact, it takes a great deal of strength to play the harp, and I have literally pumped iron to build up the muscles."

* Men's instruments: While the harp and sometimes the violin have helped women gain entry to the major orchestras, the other side of the coin is that some other instruments are barred to them. "The real problems for women are in the brass section," said one orchestra member. "The men feel women don't have enough breath. They all feel that way -- ask anyone. And it may be true, in that we spent our childhoods playing with dolls, and they spent theirs playing football. With the proper training, women could do it."

And, just as de Brosses wrote about Vivaldi's all-girl orchestra, there is today no instrument so big as to intimidate women. Elsewhere, women play the cumbersome double bass and the big, wrap-around tuba. The NSO, too, has a woman horn player, Laurel Bennert.

* Male resentment: "I've always had problems, but not necessarily here," said violinist Charlotte Davis. "I'm a black woman, and it's hard to pinpoint whether it's more or less me being black or more or less me being a woman. It's hard to look past this oddity for a lot of people, and to realize that I really do play the instrument. There were a few people in this orchestra who said, when I was hired, 'She got that position because she's a black female.' But I don't have that problem now."

* Low expectations: From violinist Kathleen Hinton-Braaten, "I think the question I have asked myself is what direction my career would have taken if I had, in fact, been a man...I was told, when I was 20 or 25, by prominent violin teachers not to have expectations from certain orchestras, that they would not want me because I was a woman."

* Promotion: Said Laurie Sokoloff Orner, flutist and piccolo player with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, "Where I feel it here is when you go into management and ask for a raise. You have to fight hard, and it's always felt to me like you're at a distinct disadvantage if you're a woman."

There have been some notable successes in moving women into the power structure. Doriot Anthony Dwyer has, for three decades, held one of the most prestigious posts in the entire orchestral world, that of first flute in the Boston Symphony. In the National Symphony, Virginia Harpham has been principal second violinist since 1964, while Dorothy Stahl has long shared the first cello desk with John Martin, a spotlight she will be leaving shortly, at her own request. (She spoke the other day of the physical stress that goes with such a post and said that she had asked to be moved to another stand in the cello section.) For several years the NSO's first flute has been Toshiko Kohno, and Sara Watkins was its first oboe for several seasons until she resigned to make a career as a soloist and in chamber music.

* Insensitivity: One NSO woman member recalled, "Once, three or four years ago during violin auditions, when most of the spots were being filled by women, a male brass player commented, 'If we aren't careful this is going to turn into a housewives' orchestra.' Most of the guys in our orchestra aren't like that, we just have a few."

"There's one man who likes to pinch my bottom," said another woman, "so I pinch his. I get offended about [sexism] when I hear it's prevented someone from getting a job. That's a very serious and very real problem. Having auditions behind a screen has helped. Until the finals, you don't know who's playing."

* Prejudice: One woman, who served for a time on the orchestra's audition committee said, "It can be difficult. Suppose you come to the point, in a final audition, where there are two candidates left and they seem to be in every way equal in their abilities. And one is a man and one is woman. Most male conductors--and the conductor has the final say in the decision--will pick the man." She added, noting that often 40-to-50 percent of the candidates in an audition are women, "I will admit, it is not easy. I know that if that situation arose when I was on the committee, I always wanted to pick the woman simply because I felt that there should be more women in orchestras."

* Dress code: "They don't quite know how they want a woman to appear," said Charlotte Davis. "They try to take the individuality out of you, we're all supposed to look the same on the stage. I don't want to go up there looking like a man, I have to feel good about myself."

In Baltimore, Laurie Sokoloff Orner echoed the same theme: "At one point they wanted to design a uniform for us, but most of the women I know are really opposed to that." The common solution is a long black dress or skirt, which does leave room for a touch of individualtiy.

Despite the complaints, the NSO women maintain that there is virtually total parity within the orchestra, which reflects Music Director Mstislav Rostropovich's strongly held opinion on the subject: "Everything depends on quality and talent. Everything else is irrelevant."

It's quite a switch from the time, only a generation ago, of Toscanini, Koussevitzky and Stokowski. Alfred Wallenstein, who was first cellist in the New York Philharmonic under Toscanini, and one of the great Italian's close friends, said recently, "Toscanini never said he would not have women in his orchestras. He just didn't." Neither did Koussevitzky. It was Koussevitzky's French successor, Charles Munch, known as "le beau Charles," who hired flutist Dwyer.

A strange anomaly in all of this was that throughout all the decades when symphony orchestras were like exclusive men's clubs, those same orchestras regularly engaged women as solo pianists, violinists and cellists.

The scene changed, but at what seemed an agonizingly slow pace to talented women players. One day in the middle 1930s, at about the same time Sara Feldman was being picketed in Baltimore, a young woman named Helen Kotas auditioned for Frederick Stock, the legendary figure responsible for the greatness of the Chicago Symphony. Kotas played the french horn, an instrument Stock told her bluntly no woman could handle. By the time the audition was over, Stock stared at her in amazement: "Are you absolutely incapable of making a mistake!" was all he could say, and promptly engaged her.

Things have progressed to such a point that the conductor is now frequently cast in the role of staunch ally. Laurie Sokoloff Orner recalled with some delight the time Baltimore conductor Sergio Commissiona rallied to her side during a difficult pregnancy. "The management told me when I was in my third month that if I became sick at any time because of my pregnancy, my sick leave would start at that time," meaning she would not be expected back until after she had the child. "The union agreed. We all went in to Commissiona and he told management, 'That's your problem, that's not Laurie's problem. She'll continue to play as long as she wants to.' "

Or, take the case of Dotian Carter's second pregnancy: "We had a manager at the time who did not exactly like the harp on the outside with me being pregnant. I heard later that he asked Antal Dorati to put me in the back, where I could not be seen. Dorati got very upset, he said he thought the people in the audience should know we are human beings, that we love and bear children. At that point I was given a riser a platform used for visibility and there I was, quite far along, on a riser and on the outside. That was Dorati for you: the bigger you were, the happier he was."

"Today," said trailblazer Sara Feldman, "it's expected that women will be in a symphony. I think the women are better than the men musicians.

"As for myself, I'm a lady of leisure now. I think I deserve it, don't you think?"