The relationship of women to AIDS -- which women are at risk for getting it, who might be reservoirs of infection, and how it may be transmitted from a woman to a man -- is still a matter of much conjecture and relatively little data.

Some women scientists at the Third International AIDS Conference last week were furious at what they considered a lack of attention paid to women, as well as what they saw as underrepresentation of women on the boards that decide what topics will be presented (and who will present them) at future conferences.

Said New York social worker Lauren Gordon, an AIDS specialist at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx: "Women and children and AIDS were simply not mentioned in plenary sessions -- except as i.v. drug users and prostitutes. The whole range of women and AIDS has not been represented."

So far, 93 percent of the roughly 36,000 U.S. AIDS victims have been males. But the experience in some high-risk areas such as New York, New Jersey and to some extent California -- where shared drug needles are a major route of transmission -- suggests that the number of women is likely to increase rapidly.

It is these women, many of them economically deprived and members of minority groups, who are the invisible victims of AIDS.

The women scientists presented a formal complaint at the conference, growing from their conviction that, as one activist put it, women were treated merely as "vectors of infection" -- from prostitute to client or mother to fetus.

It is unknown what percentage of babies of infected mothers will develop AIDS. Estimates range from 30 to 80 percent. Some newborns who test positive for the virus may eventually turn negative once the mother's antibodies are cleared from the infant's system.

Also unclear is the mechanism and likelihood of woman-to-man transmission. Transmission in the other direction -- man to woman -- has been estimated. Dr. Warren Winkelstein of the University of California at Berkeley told the conference that with no other co-factors present -- such as a venereal disease or break in the skin -- the chance of a woman being infected in a single episode of penile/vaginal sex with an infected partner was about 1 in 1,000. (Obviously the chances increase with repeated episodes.)

Woman-to-man transmission is thought to be even less efficient. But because so few American men have been infected in an episode of vaginal sex with a woman, it was, Winkelstein said at the conference, "impossible to compute the odds."

"There is an appalling dearth of information at this conference about women and children," Margaret Nichols was saying. "It's like we're the invisible people here. Yet the feeling is that at this stage of the game, women {associated with drug use} are the group at highest risk to contract AIDS and the least likely to recognize it, so they are the least likely to practice prevention."

Nichols is a coordinator for a New Jersey volunteer organization called the Hyacinth Foundation, which is seeking "buddies" for women, especially those in Newark and Jersey City low-income areas, who are struggling with AIDS.

"AIDS," she notes, "is the leading cause of death in women ages 25 to 29 in New York, and within two years may be the leading cause of death among all women of childbearing age in New York. And although we don't have any statistical breakdowns, I suspect that will be true as well in Newark and Jersey City, and in any minority area.

"This is still a minority woman's issue -- minority and poverty. The lack at this conference is not unique. It's happening all over the country where women are just not even getting the basic information."

Nichols, a self-described former heroin addict herself, says that protecting women from infection raises unique issues not applicable to gay men or male drug abusers. "You know, with gay men, a lot of the issue is sort of scare them and teach them to have fun with safe sex," she says. "But with women, the issue is, how the hell are they going to get their boyfriends to wear condoms?

"What will they do if they can't? These men are probably their meal tickets. What are they going to do? Just say no? And let the man walk out and leave you with your kids and no money? Oh, sure."

Most of the women with AIDS in New York and New Jersey are i.v. drug users. Some are married to or live with i.v. drug users. Mary Boland, a pediatrics nurse and director of the AIDS program at Children's Hospital of New Jersey in Newark, the state's principal treatment facility for AIDS-infected children and infants, speculates that AIDS infection is now probably approaching 100 percent among the drug-using population. The number of infected babies seen at the hospital is doubling every year, Boland reported. In the first quarter of 1987, "we diagnosed 20 new kids."

Dr. Patricia Kloser, a gynecologist at the New Jersey State University of Medicine and Dentistry, presented a poster study at the conference in which 185 women with AIDS were described. "The scariest thing," she said, "was that between 1985 and the end of 1986, three times more women were diagnosed than had been in all the previous five years." I.v. drug use or a sexual partner who was an i.v. drug user were the principal predictors of AIDS in her study.

And although studies have found a high rate of AIDS infection in some groups of prostitutes, in Kloser's study all the infected prostitutes were also i.v. drug users.

"The problem is drugs," she said.

Although the cases are few, the problems for white, middle-income women with AIDS are also poignant. Judy Pollatsek, a counselor with the St. Francis Center in the District, which deals with terminally ill patients and their families, said that "there is such a stigma with AIDS no matter how it is contracted. There is something shameful. I'm sure it is not a rational thing. A woman I spoke to who got AIDS from a transfusion refuses to go public because she is afraid she will be ostracized. She would love some support but does not feel gay groups or i.v. drug users could help."

Kloser had a patient in New Jersey. "I remember her well," she said, "because she died only a few weeks ago. She was a college-educated woman who . . . happened to have a husband who had had some exposure in the past. He didn't tell her because he'd been clean for a number of years. Then, she went on to get AIDS, transmit it to her baby and then died. The man is now a widower with a baby with AIDS. He is positive for the HIV antibodies but has never had symptoms." The AIDS specialists at Children's Hospital National Medical Center in the District feel that they are sitting at the edge of a volcano.

So far, fewer than a dozen babies have been formally classified -- according to federal guidelines -- as having AIDS. More than 100, however, have tested positive for the virus.

Dr. Shelby Josephs, Children's AIDS pediatrician, also has a group of babies he calls "sick-ARC," that is, babies with recurrent bacterial infections stemming from the AIDS virus but who do not quite meet the official standards for a diagnosis of AIDS.

Says Children's AIDS coordinator Dottie Ward Wimmer, "I think it's out there. It's just not being recognized yet."

"Maybe we can't head it off," says Wimmer, "but we can offer good service, compassionate quality care and let the at-risk community know that they won't be discriminated against, that nobody is going to make judgments. We are not there to turn them in for using drugs. We're not there to judge their sexual habits or preferences or whatever.

"We're just there to talk about saving lives and keeping their babies healthy. "Sometimes, though," she said, "it's pretty hard to do." More Information Children's Hospital of New Jersey, AIDS Program, 15 S. Ninth St., Newark, N.J. 07107. The Hyacinth Foundation, 308 Raritan Ave., Highland Park, N.J. 08904. San Francisco AIDS Foundation/Women's AIDS Network. (415) 864-4376.