The National Museum of Women in the Arts -- which opens Tuesday to the public -- has an aura so genteel you'd think it might be called the National Museum of Ladies in the Arts.

The great hall of its building, at 13th Street and New York Avenue NW, has a decor of high opulence as if dressed for a ball. The works of art displayed in its main inaugural exhibit, "American Woman Artists, 1830-1930," are insistently respectable. Together they suggest restricted opportunities, the clink of china teacups, lavender sachets.

Nothing here is strident, or vehemently political. The real challenge this museum hurls at other institutions -- those that undervalue women -- has been softened by a sort of Junior League gentility. Working woman artists wearing overalls, not pearls, may someday march in sisterhood together through its galleries. Works of art conceived as intensely confrontational -- say, for instance, Judy Chicago's "Dinner Party" -- may someday be displayed in its marble halls. I think that's bound to happen. But it hasn't happened yet. And first impressions count.

Crystal chandeliers. Walls of padded silk. New fluted marble balustrades. Floral decorations picked out in gold leaf. The first glimpse of the place calls to mind a palace. Or at least a formal ballroom. The two new marble staircases that sweep through the great hall suggest the sort of stairs debutantes descend.

The museum, like a debutante, honors the traditional and accepts the rules of etiquette. Many women, many artists, snarl at the establishment, but this museum seeks a place within the art world's aristocracy. The spirit of the place in many quiet ways suggests a sort of demure sweetness. But do not be misled.

Washington's Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, the museum's founding president, has accomplished something radical. No player on the art scene here has a deeper understanding of power and of money and of how our system works. Despite her white-glove graciousness, hard-working Billie Holladay is a warrior and a winner. She has organized a lobby of remarkable effectiveness. She has raised large sums of money. Primarily by strength of will, she has called into existence a national museum of vast potential influence. She has built an institution of remarkable effectiveness -- it's like a high-tech steel tank wearing a corsage.

Consider, for example, how private art museums here struggle for support.

The Corcoran Gallery of Art, which has one of the handsomest museums in the country and has been serving working artists for more than a century, has managed to attract a paid-up membership of 3,508. The beautiful and much beloved Phillips Collection, which has been signing up its members since 1984, now has 765.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts, though its doors have not yet opened, already has a membership -- from all 50 states and 15 foreign countries -- of 62,346. Four hundred sixty-six of them have contributed at least $5,000 each.

Since 1984, all the members of the Phillips have contributed a total of $320,915. In fiscal 1986, the members of the Corcoran provided $275,194. Last year, the new museum's members gave more than $2 million.

Holladay, it's clear, can work a board room or a mailing list or a gathering of givers as well as anyone around. Her building has three staircases. She has "sold" their treads $1,000 each.

Martin Marietta has contributed $1.5 million to the Martin Marietta Great Hall, which will double as a party room. (It opens to a kitchen and will be rented out for gatherings; at an evening rental of as much as $7,500 it is sure to bring in cash. AT&T donated $100,000 for the new museum's reading room, and through both its foundation and its advertising budget, has provided $50,000 more for the new museum's opening. A $25,000 grant from the Mars Foundation also helped pay for the reading room. The Continental Corp. Foundation put up money for the building's contemporary gallery; Sterling Drug Inc. paid for the mezzanine foyer; the Trane Co. gave the climate control system; American Standard Plumbing provided the plumbing fixtures; Du Pont gave the carpet -- and the list goes on and on.

"American Women Artists, 1830-1930," the opening exhibit, has been supported by a $500,000 grant from United Technologies.

The museum has already raised an astonishing $16 million. It is seeking an endowment of $15 million more. It bought its 70,000-square-foot building, a former Masonic lodge, for nearly $5 million, and has spent $7 million on its meticulous refurbishment. For an untried art museum -- which will not charge admission -- it is, by any measure, in fine financial shape.

But what about its art?

The museum's founders argue that the history of art has been outrageously misread, that the men who write the textbooks, and who run the art museums, have long neglected women's art. They note that H.W. Janson -- a scholar whose exclusions provided a sharp spur for their fund-raising campaign -- long ignored all women artists in his famous survey textbook. And they point out, quite correctly -- though their fund-raising material does not tell us why -- that of every hundred objects in the permanent collections of American museums, 90, perhaps 95, were produced by men.

I wish that I could tell you that "American Woman Artists, 1830-1930," their major opening exhibit, demonstrated forcibly the wrongness of such judgments. I wish that I could say that Holladay and her allies had filled their new museum with works produced by women whose unfamiliar beauty or authority or power overwhelmed the viewer. But that is not the case.

The majority of its objects, though some are finely made, are modest in ambition or distressingly conventional. This is not the sort of show that suddenly revises our reading of the past. It was organized by guest curator Eleanor Tufts of Southern Methodist University. It is being circulated by Annemarie H. Pope's International Exhibitions Foundation. It contains 99 paintings and 25 sculptures. The women in its pictures seem, by modern standards, exceptionally demure.

Lots of them wear lace, or pearls, or stoles of ermine. They behave as ladies ought to. The woman in "In Anticipation of the Invitation" (1888) by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1850-1936) is holding up a mirror and admiring her bonnet. Lucy May Stanton (1875-1931), in her miniature self-portrait, made in 1912, holds a long-stemmed silver goblet. The woman in one portrait here by Lilla Cabot Perry (1848-1933) is offering a cookie to her lapdog. A large and moody canvas dated 1892 by Harriet Campbell Foss (1860-1938) is more impressive -- the woman it portrays is manufacturing silk flowers. The artists represented must have been hard-working, committed and courageous -- or they would not have become artists -- but little of their fire shows up in their pictures, or in the women they portray.

Some of them are reading quietly by windows. Some are playing violins or pianos. Few exert themselves, though Lydia Cassatt is a notable exception. In a well-known portrait by her well-known sister, Mary, Lydia is driving a horse-drawn carriage through a park. But many of the women here do little more than sit.

The exhibit reiterates much we know already. Mary Cassatt's exceptionally suggestive "Little Girl in a Blue Armchair" (1878) has been lent to the museum by the National Gallery of Art. The other Cassatt on display, "Susan on a Balcony Holding a Dog" (1883) has been borrowed from the Corcoran. The paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe are comparably familiar (there are four O'Keeffes, all good ones, in the present show). Painters Romaine Brooks (1874-1970) and Lilly Martin Spencer (1822-1902) have both been given retrospectives by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Art. Sixteen objects in the show come from Washington museums. The Whitney, the Metropolitan, the Boston, the Philadelphia and other major institutions are also represented. Many of these objects have not been overlooked by important institutions. They're already there.

The exhibit does include a small number of objects both fine and unfamiliar. I was particularly taken by Margaret Foster Richardson's exceptional self-portrait from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Her face might be a schoolteacher's, she wears a necktie, a stiff collar and a pair of rimless glasses, but her body is in motion. The painter, from the neck down, seems a nymph, perhaps a muse.

The 1885 self-portrait by Ellen Day Hale, from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, is another first-rate picture. Cecilia Beaux's 1901 bravura "Portrait of Bertha Vaughn," lent by Radcliffe College, is also fine. So are Katherine S. Dreier's "Abstract Portrait of Marcel Duchamp" (1918) from the Museum of Modern Art, and Florine Stettheimer's delightful "Picnic at Bedford Hills," which was painted the same year and portrays Duchamp, too.

The most surprising pictures here (there aren't many in the show) include "Street Light" (1930) by Constance Coleman Richardson (it's on the cover of the catalogue), and "The Fountain" (1926), a memorable abstraction by Agnes Pelton (1881-1961), and a freely painted scene of Ellis Island done by the long-lived Martha Walter (1875-1976) in 1922.

Many of these artists are competent, or even more than competent. It is easy to admire the high skill of Anna Lownes' "Study of Apples" (1890). But all these ladies being ladylike, and all these table still lifes, and all these neoclassical statues of fawns and nymphs and heroes, lend something close to dullness to the spirit of the show.

One cannot help suspecting that the artists represented, or most of them at least, have not been neglected because of sexist bias. Most of them, it seems to me, tried too hard for graciousness. You see that in their work. They were victims of their times.

Times have changed, not much, but some. Susan Rothenberg recently was given a retrospective by the Phillips, Joan Mitchell soon will have one at the Corcoran, the National Gallery is preparing major exhibitions of Berthe Morisot and O'Keeffe, and a sculpture retrospective by the gifted Nancy Graves is now here at the Hirshhorn. Women artists of distinction are no longer ignored by Washington's museums. A major portion of the credit should be given, I believe, to the art world feminists who have been lobbying for years to see justice done.

It's been more than 15 years since Mary Beth Edelson first picketed the Corcoran to protest women's absence from a Corcoran biennial. Feminists are still out there in the streets making the same points. In New York, for example, the group called the Guerrilla Girls has been papering the streets with statistic-laden flyers: "How many women had one-person exhibitions in New York City museums last year?" asked one of their sheets. "The Guggenhiem, zero. The Met, zero. The Modern, one. The Whitney, zero."

Another poster in the series is being distributed this weekend by Guerrilla Girls in ape masks. It points out that while the percentage of women represented in the Whitney Biennial was 14 in 1973, by 1986 it had dropped to nine. The battle they are fighting still is far from won.

Holladay's museum prefers another strategy. Its inaugural exhibitions are completely apolitical. And lacking in cohesion. The show on the top floor includes some handsome, rather recent things by, among others, Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Lee Bontecou, Lee Krasner, Alice Neel and Alma Thomas. But this grouping tells us little except that women do make art, and often do so well. But by now that point is moot.

If you want to understand the tepidness that characterizes "American Woman Artists, 1830-1930," you have to peer beyond its objects. A partial answer is suggested by Wanda M. Corn's essay in the exhibition catalogue. But much more is required. You have to pay attention to the policies that governed the art schools and the galleries, to the complex factors that produced restricted opportunities, to pervasive male bias, to the spirit of the times.

Like many feminists, I cannot escape the fear that the National Museum of Women in the Arts is in danger of becoming a sort of woman artists' ghetto. If so, it will be governed by an idea whose time has gone.

Holladay and her colleagues have accomplished much already. But the easy part is over. Their real work has just begun.