BY WAY OF GETTING AROUND to the woman in Michigan who killed the man who was beating her. I'd like to start with something called "tings" - as in the expression. "Here's the ting, kid." Tings were always being explained to you in places like high school locker rooms or street corners and one of the tings you had to know was that there was justice and then there was justice. The first kind is what you learned in school and the second is what you learned in life. It was the second one that allowed you to hit women. That, as they said, was the ting.

In fact, there was times when you almost had to hit women. Of course, there were dicussed for hours, but there were other times when everyone would agree that a good shot in the mouth wars in order, everyone nodding and saying yeah, there being no question of what had to be done. An example of that, for instance, being any example of when a woman had cheated on a man, cheating being broadly defined as anything that made the man lose face.

After a while, you sort of caught on to the fact that there was a whole body of peudolaw on the subject of male-female relations and that sometimes this law took precedence over the other law. I mean, you were told that you could kill another man for offenses that had to do with you woman and you could beat her and you could get away with all this because the law would either look the other way or would, in its wisdom, support you. These were basic rules, something akin to self-defense or the notion that you kill someone for trespassing on your property, especially after you had put up a piece of paper saying "posted."

Anyway, this was all part of that business that may be called something like frontier justice or vigilante justice or whatever. But it meant in some neighborhoods that you could pound someone to a tender state if they happened tobrush against you on the street and you had to fight if you happened to get what is known as a dirty look - "what you looking at, man?" It all was explained with the wonderful sentence - "A man's got to do what a man's got to do." A good deal of the time, what men had to do involved women and most of the time these women were a good deal weaker and smaller, a fact that battered women are still asked what they did to provoke their husbands.

Now we come to Francine Hughes who has become, like Inez Garcia before her, a "symbol" and who has been hailed by some elements of the women's movement as a heroine of some kind. What Hughes did, not to put too fine a point on it, was douse her former husband's bed with gasoline and toss a match into it as he slept. Those are the basic facts, but there are mitigating circumstances aplenty and it is those that lend the case to the cause of feminism.

The facts are worth spelling out. For something like 13 years, Mrs. Hughes endured a marriage in which she was beaten, throttled and, from time to time, chased around the house by her knife-wielding husband. Four children were born of this union, but back in 1971 Mrs. Hughes decided she had had enough. She divorced her husband, moving back only after he became injured in a car accident. He never changed his ways, though, and on the day he died he not only beat his former wife, but somehow forced her to burn the books she had bought for a course she was taking at a local business college.

There is a lot to the Hughes case that makes it less than the perfect case, even for militant feminists. First of all, the jury failed to see things the same way of some of Mrs. Hughes supporters and did not acquit on the basis of self-defense, but on grounds of temporary insanity. Mrs. Hughes stands ready to make speeches anyway, her topic, according to UPI, being wife abuse. She might explain, while she's at it, why she moved back in with a man who had been brutalizing her for 13 years and why she stuck around for such punishment. This is often the question when it comes to wife-beating, but in this case Hughes had already proved that she had a place to go and could live on her own.

No matter, Militant feminists have seized upon her case as something of a precedent, establishing right off that a woman has the right to defend herself from the attacks of a brutal husband, even kill him if need be. The fact that she killed him after 13 years of this sort of thing apparently means nothing. In face, the fact that she did to him what he had nevng. In face, the fact that she did to him what he had nevot at all.What matters is something else and while it is hard to figure out what to call it, you can call it a new kind of justice.

What you sense is the making of a new code, or the adoption, maybe, of the worst of the old, male-dominated one - the notion that for certain kinds of behaviour a rough, vigilante justice is in order. It was that notion that troubled me when feminists argued that Inez Garcia was justified in shooting the man who had earlier raped her and it is that notion that troubles me in the Hughes case. It is not that neither woman had beenwronged, it is only that they took it upon themselves to administer justice and they did not make the punishment fit the crime. They worked according to their own code and they were defended and excused by some according to this special code. It is as if they said. "A woman's got to do what a women's got to do." - which, give or take a word or two, is exactly what you learned years ago in locker rooms and street corners.

Back then it was a tiny and not a movement.