PATRICIA McGOWAN WALD didn't flinch when the freshman senator from New Hampshire labeled her an enemy of the family.Wald, the mother of five children, took notes.

And Wald, 50, who has been nominated for a seat on the U.S. appeals court here, listened while others squirmed when a fundamentalist preacher, with a red leather Bible at his right, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Wald is "an instrument of the devil."

How much easier this would have been, Wald said later at her confirmation hearing, if she had spent the past 16 years toiling over the Uniform Commercial Code instead of putting herself in the middle of touchy legal disputes about the mentally ill, the handicapped, drugs, crime - and children.

But, she told the committee, the finest hours for lawyers often come when opposing views clash. And there was no way, she said, that she was going to discourage other lawyers from taking on controversies.

She invited the committee's questions. She was ready for them. Afterwards, even those few who may have had a doubt about her nomination agreed she had done well. She was "astute," one minority staff member said.

Wald, now the assistant attorney general for legislative affairs, always has been anxious to suceed, as a young wife and mother, and as a lawyer. If she goes to the court, as expected, she will bring with her a pride and satisfaction in both those carrers.

In 1948, when Patrica McGowan of Torrington, Conn., enrolled in Yale Law School, first in her class at the Connecticut College for Women, postwar society had no great hope for the future of young lawyers, and particularly for women.

"We had such limited expectations," said Wald's law school roommate, Joan Z. Bernstein, now the general counsel to the Environmental Protection Agency. "It never occurred to us that there were things we'd be able to get."

They both wanted sucess and they worked for it, Berstein said. Patricia McGowan was "very much the scholar." She was articles editor of the law journal and, after graduation, a law clerk to Judge Jerome N. Frank on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. In 1952, she came to Washington, to a firm then known as Arnold, Fortas and Porter.

Her motive was not solely ambition. She had married a Yale Law School classmate, Robert Lewis Wald, then stationed aboard a U.S. Navy attack transport in Norfolk. Washington was the city nearest to her husband where Patricia Wald could also pursue her career.

She remembers the day at the firm when "the question" came up.

They asked if she would stay on after her first child was born. Take some time off, they said, and see how you feel about coming back.

"I said I don't think so," Wald recalled. "I thought I'd like to stay home."

The decision, Wald said, is one of those that "your gut makes before your mind does." The Walds had five children in seven years. Patricia Wald, an only child who often spoke of having a large family, retired for almost 10 years to raise them.

Wald always assumed that she would take up the law again, but she had no notion of how or when.

She began her reentry slowly, in the early 1960s. She had a little desk in the den of her Maryland home and she worked when the children slept. She researched price discrimination questions and analyzed rules for collection of evidence in criminal cases.

In 1963, Wald joined Daniel J. Freed, a law school classmate who now is a Yale professor, at the National Conference on Bail and Criminal Justice, called by then attorney general Robert F. Kennedy. At home, Wald waded through court records, surveys and reports. On weekends, while her husband minded the children, she was at the library conducting research.

In 1964, Wald and Freed published "Bail in the United States - 1964." Still considered the seminal work on bail reform, that study challenged the core of the traditional system - money bond as an assurance that a defendant will show up for his day in court. Their ideas eventually made the bail bondsman obsolete in favor of a system of pretrial release that was based on such factors as ties to the community rather than ability to pay.

For the next five years, still juggling her professional life to the demands of her home, Wald served as a member and consultant to two presidential commissions - including the Johnson Commission on Crime in the District of Columbia - She worked as a consultant to the National Conference on Law and Poverty and wrote a book about the subject. In 1967, she went back to work full time at the Justice Department in the Office of Criminal Justice. She had an "arrangement," she said, in which she could leave work at 3:30 p.m. "for when the kids came home."

There were days, Bernstein said, when she and Wald would sit in the grocery store parking lot, and moan about it all.

In 1968, at the age of 40, Patricia Wald decided to go back to the courtroom. She said that was "the scariest" part of returning to her profession.

Wald joined the staff of Neighborhood Legal Services, where the lawyers were "all young kids" and "beans," she said. She got the feel back for litigation, for the crisis orientation of the courtroom, and the "acute embarrassment when you make a mistake."

It wasn't easy. She took a case to the U.S. District Court once, for a St. Elizabeths patient, and brought a prominent expert witness along. She stood before the court and introduced herself as "Patricia Wald."

"What did you say your name was?" the judge asked.

"Patricia Wald," she repeated.

"That's not your name," the judge said. "Are you married? Then tell me what your name is."

And so she told him, 'Mrs. Robert Wald."

In 1970, Wald was the codirector of the Ford Foundation's Drug Abuse Research Project and co-authored a book on "Dealing with Drug Abuse."

In 1971, she joined the Center for Law and Social Policy, a public interest law firm that brought test cases in consumer, environmental and health areas. There she was the moderating influence among other lawyers who advocated changes and reform.

"We were younger than she was and more likely to be one-sided," said Joseph Onek, now associate director of the Carter administration's domestic policy staff.

In 1973, she joined the Mental Health Law Project and was a member of the American Bar Association's Juvenile Justice Standards Project. A year later, at an afternoon seminar in St. Paul, Minn., where she had gone as a favor to a friend, she gave a speech about children's rights that was to haunt her five years later before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The audience consisted of about 100 law students and social workers. She took the liberty of an academic setting to ask all the tough questions that legal scholars raise about the family: When does "status" for children begin? When can a child make a decision to sign a contract, choose a school, seek medical and psychiatric help on his own or vote? Is someone under 18 informed enough to vote?

Generally, she said, she would support the presumption that children should enjoy the same rights as adults - unless there is a risk they would harm themselves by acting on their own to prove that they are not physically and emotionally skilled enough to make those decisions.

When it was done, she put the speech away. It was reprinted in "Child Welfare," a publication of the Child Welfare League, in a textbook about the family law, and in the American Bar Association publication Human Rights. That's where the Conservative from New Hampshire.

Humphrey appeared as a witness before the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was the first time in recent memory that a sitting senator spoke in opposition to a judicial nominee.

Mrs. Wald's ideas, Humphrey said, "would leave most Americans agape." He accused her of delivering in the Minnesota speech a "stinging rebuke" to parents, of implying that they are callous, unconcerned slavemasters." Her thoughts are "proposterous" and her nomination "outrageous," Humphrey told the committee.

"Bizarre" is how her supporters described the attack. Wald, mother wife, accomplished advocate of the poor and the handicapped, was being portrayed as a single-handed threat to the sanctity of parenthood.

What really bothers Gordon Humphrey and other conservatives is what he calls an obvious attempt by the White House to "pack the bench with liberal activists." The Republican minority plans to flex a little muscle on that, and it started with the assault on Patricia Wald.

Last week, after the confirmation hearing, Humphrey, with the consent of the judiciary committee Wald a hastily prepared questionaire. It covered full voting rights for the District of Columbia, the Equal Rights Amendment, the Panama Canal and, once again, children's right. And, if her nomination is reported out by the committee tomorrow, when it is scheduled to meet, Humphrey plans to ask the Senate to withhold judgment until transcript of her confirmation hearing can be distributed to the full Senate.

In he meantime, Patricia Wald will wait.

OBITER: At the D.C. Bar meeting last week, Mayor Marion Barry got tangled up in the never-ending confusion between the Bar and the D.C. Bar Association. The mayor opened his speech at the Capital Hilton to 350 members of the Bar with praise for the Bar Association's 108-year history as a voluntary organization. The D.C. Bar is seven years old and membership is compulsory. CAPTION: Picture, PATRICIA McGOWAN WALD . . . nominee for U.S. Appeals Court