THEY WERE, as Rep. John Burton (D-Calif). put it, a "fairly elite group." They were the wives of congressmen and they appeared as a panel yesterday to tell a congressional subcomittee what it's like to be a woman in your forties and fifties leaving home for the first time after decades of marriage and rearing children.

They talked about what it's like to want a job and have no resume, what it's like to be a mature woman and yet be treated like a rookie trainee. "As a group, we have lost the resilience and easy self-confidence of our youth," said Jo Oberstar, 42, mother of four, "and we receive innumerable rejections . . . because of . . . the long gap in our work history, the prevailing belief that our knowledge and skills are rusty and outdated, and overcrowding of a job market . . . in our traditional fields," such as nursing or teaching.

The subcommittee members heard Charlotte Conable tell of keeping a newspaper clipping about a continuing education program for women for two years "as I wondered whether I had any intelligence or talents worth testing or whether I was worth saving at all."

They heard Margaret Reuss, chairman of the economics department at the University of D.C., recount her difficulties in trying to care for an invalid, aging mother while trying to go back to work.

And they heard Susan Steiger, widow of Rep. William Steiger, urge legislation that would help provide training and education through grants, scholarships, counseling or tax credits to mature women and to employers who hire them. She spoke of the 17 million veterans who have received education and training to help them re-enter the workforce and generate taxable income and urged a similar "readjustment benefits bill" for widows and mature women who are divorced and need to go to work.

Their message was clear: Precipitous social changes have produced an entire generation of women who made homemaking a career, not realizing that when they matured they would be in deadend jobs. They would emerge from the isolation of home and family and confront a labor market that values youth over maturity and employers who chuckle when you write homemaking on a job resume.

The women urged the committee to explore federal scholarship programs to help maturity women get education and training, tax credits to employers who train them, federal support for continuing education programs in universities. They urged federal incentives to flex-time programs so mothers can work and get training. "Someone does have to raise the children," said Susan DeConcini.

And the congressional wives got a sympathetic audience. Geraldine Ferraro (D-N.Y.) told what it was like for her to go back to work as a lawyer when her youngest entered second grade. And Burton, who chaired the subcommittee, urged the wives to lobby and educate other congressional spouses so they lobby their husbands on behalf of legislation helping mature women. "As you know," he said, "on the ERA many of the male votes were turned around at home."

It was a hearing at which the establishment talked to itself about what has become an establishment issue. The problems of mature women-whether they are widowed or divorced, or whether their homemaking career is ended and they want to start a new career-has penetrated to the point that congressional wives are personally being affected and personally speaking up.

Then something unsettling happened. Betty Friedan followed the congressional wives and took serious exception with that they were proposing. This is not just a problem for women, she told the subcommittee. The midlife crisis of wanting to change careers, or wanting to change your life, is affecting men too. She spoke of middle-aged men dying of strokes and heart attacks because of career pressures and she spoke of the need to held middle-aged men go back to school, retrain themselves, improve their lives.

And she spoke of harsh political realities: "With the increased burden on all our tax dollars. I do not think we can realistically expect such programs for women alone even if today's midlife women are facing more stringent economic problems because of obsolete or inadequate preparation fof midlife and beyond."

"Both women and men need new kind of tax credits, low interst loans, educational subsidies, and counseling for their midlife crises-and both women and men need new options of flex-time, part-time, and shared jobs up to and beyond voluntary retirement, as well as low interst loans for new kinds of housing at midlife-the kind of options government policies make available now only to the young," she said.

When the baby boom generation comes of middle-age, "the necessitites and possibilities of new education, new directions and growth, at midlife and beyond . . . will, it seems to me, have the same kind of priority for our society," as did the demands of blacks and women in the sixties and seventies. Because of the declining birth rate and the aging of the population, "the demands of midlife men and women will be the next frontier of our evolving society," he said.

There was a brief silence after her testimony and then Burton and Ferraro started questioning her, almost insisting that women who had limited work options or who had been out of the workforce should get some extra help at midlife. There was something odd about the scene. There were members of Congress trying to develop legislation to help women and there was Betty Friedan telling them she didn't want special protective legislation for women.

"Look," Friedan finally told them, turning around to the audience of women. "How much longer are we going to talk to ourselves? You'd be amazed if you'd open these hearings to men.

"I don't apologize to anyone about my credentials battling for women," she said, thumping the table. "I've been at it longer than anyone.But I think we have to shift our focus to include midlife crisis of men and women now. I don't think special protective legislation that costs money is going to get anywhere today . . . There is a midlife need that is shared by men and women."

Friedan, of course, doesn't have to apologize to anyone about her credentials and that is what makes her testimony significant. She has, as she put it, gone beyond the women's movement she launched in 1963 and now she is urging other women to do the same.