SHE WAS THE MOTHER of a friend and heralded by all the other mothers in the neighborhood as a housekeeper nonpareil.She was of German heritage, and local lore (this was Virginia) had it that Germans were great housekeepers.

This was a woman to be admired - what we could call a role model now.We knew she was cleaning house by 9 in the morning and on one thought to suggest that maybe one day she stop after the breakfast dishes, and join a therpy group.

Good housekeeping wasn't just the name of a magazine. It was a way of life, a measure of your value, like marrying a lawyer. If cleaniness was next to godliness, messiness wasn't far behind adultery. Our mothers understood quilt. They also understood the system: fathers workedinside it, and at the end of the week the whole family could relax and enjoy the weekend.

That was before inflation and liberation and all the other forces that have drawn 56 per cent of American women out of their homes and into the workforce. And while we may be having fun at work we remember and we feel guilty. We sit in commuter traffic in the morning and remember the beds that aren't made, the dishes in the sink, the bread crumbs on the dining room carpet, the laundry in front of the washing machine

Sure, we have an excuse: We work. But deep down we know that's just an excuse, which means it's no excuse,whcihmeans we feel guilty all week and go into a frenzy on weekends. We've made one compromise: housework is no longer just women's work. Not anymore. Everybody has to do it. Instead of families spending weekends in museums, libraries, taking short trips, vistng relatives, doing good deeds, or curling up with a book, we all get together and clean house.

An ace political reporter in Washington spends his Saturdays doing the laundry. Others of us spend our Saturdays trying to get children to do the laundry to clean their rooms, maybe even to vaccum - to do something - and by the time the hollering, the marketing and the chores are over, so is the weekend. It's Monday morning, we're dressing for work and suddenly it hits us: something's gone awry. We worked hard all last week so we could relax and enjoy the weekend and we missed it.

"Who wants to spend Saturdays cleaning," says Lani Lovern of Baltimore, founder and sole propriotor of Magic Mop, a woman who is currently cleaning up - financially - because she understands that housework has become valuable work.

Lovern entered the free enterprise system because she had to. She dropped out of high school in to get married - "dumb, uh? We all believed our prince came on a while horse and it would last forever" - and she found out it lasted 15 years.Separated, with three daughters, Lovern is getting steady child support and her husband pays the mortagage on thehouse, but she still needs to work. "I was unemployed and very down because I had pressing bills. I was very discourged with the work market because I couldn't find a job I had no skills. I had no experience. I had no education."

In March 1977, she walked into the centre for displaced homemakers in Baltimore and eight months later emerged a business owner."I went through his self-evalution program to get my head straight. They made mesee I had skills. Who would have thought that what I've been doing all my life, I could make a living at it?"

Lovern became an independent cleaning contractor, which is not a fancy name for a maid.

She and seven other women entered a pilot program developed by a management consultant for the centre that gave them on-the-job training, taught them how to keep books, set up a business, do the taxes that go with it, give it a name and promote it.

"The center did some advertising for us and from that point on we were on our own. I put my own fliers out in an area I wanted to work in. I have two and three and do an average of three of three t four houses a day. We do basically maintenance: vacuuming, dusting, counter and surface areas, floors."

This is service with a contract. Lovern examines the house of a prospective client, explains that her business provides the transportation and equipment, estimates the cost of doing the houses, then offers a six-month of one-year contract.

Magic Mop cleans houses weekly or biweekly and the price stays the same for the length of the contract."One of the things that makes this work so well is the reliability of the contract," says Lovern. "They don't have to pay social security taxes or provide the transportation. I take care of that. It's just like if you were going to hire a plumber.

"There is a need for this. This is why it's going over so well. I've turned clients down becuase I can't handle them." Lovern, like the rest of us, has trouble finding help. "They have to be discreet, trustworthy, reliable. I have a schedule to meet and they have to be physcially able to do the work. It's hard work. I'm always looking for more employes. There's got to be more women out there who want to do this kind of work. My pitch now to women is to move up with the business.

"Lovern estimates her business will gross more than $25,000 this year and that she will earn about $9,600 doing an average of four houses a day, four days a week. "I've just gotten to the point where I can take some time off. I'm going to school, getting a general education degree. I'd like to get my diploma before my daughter does."

There's theory gaining currency in the women's movement that earnng gap between men and women can be narrowed by upgrading jobs traditionally held by women. So far, the theory is being advanced on moral grounds of fair play: equal pay for work of equal value, goes the slogan, but slogans alone don't change economic systems.

Lovern and others like her are going to end up changing the system because they're playing it for all it's worth . They are upgrading the most traditional of women's jobs: housework.They are professionalizing it, taking out of marriage and into the market place and finding that they can't possibly meet the demand. They aren't maids, they are businesswomen, and they are making a lot more than the minimum wage.

They are going to find out that as women earn better wages and more working couples have more expendable income they will pay real money for dependable, professional housework.

Women will discover they can charge a man's wages for women's work, not because it's fair or morally right, but because working couples will pay dearly fora seventh day to rest.