THE YEAR WAS 1946 and the hit musical on Broadway was "Call Me Mister," which was about the transition from wartime to peacetime, and the lyrics to one of the songs spoke to the generous temper of easier times: "Nothing is too good for the men who fought for the old red, white and blue." It was called "The Senator's Song."

Down here in Washington, Congress was responding to the temper of those times and to the persuasive arguments of American Legion lobbyist Brig. Gen. John Thomas Taylor. Congress had passed laws that helped veterans get education and housing. And laws were quickly passed in Congress and in state legislatures giving veterans preferred treatment in public-sector employment. The idea was that a man who had spent the war fighting or who had become disabled should get a little edge over the guy who had stayed at home.

Various states worked out different systems for accomplishing this and some, like the federal government, developed a point system. You take a test for a type of public service job and score, say, 85. If you are a veteran, you automatically get five points added to your score. If you are somewhat disabled, you get 10 points, which puts you at the top of your class. It's a differential that helps you get the jobs and keep them. Some states, such as Massachusetts, skipped the points and went directly to absolute rules: If you were a disabled veteran you got top consideration based on your score, then you were followed by veterans, then mothers and widows of veterans killed in some service-related way, then by all others, always on the basis of their scores.

The veterans became what we now call a protected group and veterans preference became a fact of life, something that the men who didn't go off to war had to live with. Maybe they lived with it out of gratitude and maybe out of guilt, but they lived with it and it has been with us ever since. It has been 33 years since World War II ended and the men who were drafted into it or enlisted are still getting that little edge. And they are getting it because for decades no one was willing to challenge the veterans lobby.

Until recently, veterans benefits and veterans preference in employment was a matter among men and a matter, too, of guilt. What legislator who has fought in the trenches is going to vote to curtail veterans preference? What legislator who didn't fight in the trenches would dare such a vote?

But something has changed. Women, who until recent years were not attracted to the military and never had much chance to enjoy veterans benefits, are going to work. They are applying for publicsector jobs or trying to change jobs within the public sector and are taking the tests and getting high scores and finding themselves in the middle or at the back of the line. Veterans are at the front even if they got no closer to the front than Kansas City.

In the mid-1970s, Helen B. Feeney, 53, of Massachusetts tried to change jobs. She took a test for the position of head administrative assistant and got a score of 92, the third highest on the exam. She ended up 14th on the list of applicants.

"Under Massachusetts law, the top three people can be considered for the job," says her American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, John Reinstein. "On the original list, she would have been considered, but once the veterans were put ahead of her, there was no way she could be reached."

Then, Feeney took the statewide administrative assistant exam and got a grade of 87. Sixteen people got higher grades and five had the same grade, which means she tied for 17th place, according to her affidavit. She ended up 70th on the hiring list, with everyone who was jumped ahead of her a veteran.

Feeney filed suit and in May a three-judge federal panel in Massachusetts ruled that the state law is unconstitutional because it "deprives women of equal protection of the laws." Massachusetts is appealing that ruling to the Supreme Court and on Monday the Justice Department -- alarmed at a perceived threat to the federal veterans preference system -- filed a brief with the Supreme Court arguing that veterans preference laws are constitutional.

This has caused an outcry from such groups as the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Women's Legal Defense Fund, who contend the Justice Department is poking its nose unneccessarily into a matter of state, not federal, law and is going out of its way to support a bad law in order to protect a good principle.

They are saying the Justice Department is flying in the face of administration policy, which has been to curtail veterans preference for those who are able-bodied and increase benefits to those who are severely disabled or Vietnam-era veterans.

"The president this spring went on record as trying to limit the number of years veterans could avail themselves of the preference as opposed to the present system which is an all-time preference, forever," says Judy Lichtman, executive director of the Women's Legal Defense Fund. This was a key element in Carter's civil service reform proposals and it was the first time the women's organizations ran up against the well-organized, entrenched veterans lobby.

"We lost," says Lichtman. "The veterans lobby was much stronger than we were. Congress could not and would not make those changes. We got a tremendous amount of help from the administration on this issue. In many ways, they took the lead on this issue, all on the basis of fairness."

Veterans preference was obscured by the Equal Rights Amendment extension fight this summer but it is clearly emerging as a major women's issue. It is not one that women are fighting in isolation. This, after all, has to do with fair play, and that strikes almost as responsive a chord in the American heart strings as flag-waving patriotism. Courts are seeing inequities and so has the Carter administration. Congress alone appears to be dazzled by the power of the veterans lobby -- or at least its perception that the veterans lobby is still powerful.

"A lot of us who have veterans preference don't really feel we should," says a high-ranking Veterans Administration official with a 10-point World War II advantage. "My sympathies are more with my daughter than the veterans. The whole purpose was to help a guy with a period of adjustment, not to give him a lifetime right to go to the head of the line. Most of us have wives and daughters who've run into this problem and our sympathies are with them."

Veterans organizations are saying that veterans have counted on preference for 30 years and that to change things now would be to change the rules in the middle of the game. Maybe that's true. Maybe it is the middle of the game but it's certainly time to change the rules. More people want to play and so far the rules simply have not been fair.