MANY years ago, when I worked in the insurance biz, I asked my boss why divorced women were charged higher rates for auto insurance than married or single women. The man, an executive in our company, said that divorced women were what he called "moral risks" although he could not explain -- nor was he asked -- how the same legal process had left their former husbands either morally unchanged or changed in a way that did not affect their driving.

Quite a lot has changed since then, but not, it appears, our attitude towards divorced women. One of them -- a four-time loser -- was present at the shooting of Vernon E. Jordan Jr., the president of the National Urban League. Her name is Martha C. Coleman and she was initially described in this and a ton of other newspapers as a "white divorcee." It is as if no more need be said.

Of course, there is a lot more to be said than that. She is a woman with a job -- supervisor at the International Harvester truck plant in Fort Wayne, Ind. She is on the board of the local chapter of the Urban League. She helped set up the dinner where Jordan spoke. She could have been called a civil rights activist, an organizer, a truck factory supervisor -- all the things she is other than a four-time divorcee. It was as if nothing else really mattered.

Across the board, people said things they should not have. The president, apparently using the same information everyone else had, called the Jordan shooting an "assassination attempt." The FBI said it was a "conspiracy" and the local cops gave their version of events. It was, they said, a "domestic" matter, which is what some cops are wont to call any crime where a woman is in the vicinity.

In this case, the woman was more than just in the vicinity. She was a witness to the actual event, and an important event it was. A major civil rights leader had been shot. The nation was already tense and edgy after the Miami riots. People wanted to know who shot Jordan and why and it was natural for people to want to know more about the woman who was with him. In that context, her four divorces were fair game -- grist for the media mill.

But the term "divorcee" is not just a statement of marital status. It is something more. It's code, newspaper code, if you like, like ruddy for drunk or jolly for fat. In this case, it's a statement about morals. "Divorcee" means she ain't got none -- a satisfying enough explanation for those offended by a white woman being with a black man. (Her race may be germane since it may have prompted the shooting.)

Now you may want to pause here and figure out if this is more insulting to Jordan than to Coleman or you may want to simply ask what this all has to do with the shooting. It doesn't. Things would not have been materially different had Coleman been married three times or twice or once or never at all. All you really need for a sordid situation is a man and a woman and put them together alone late at night. It matters not at all then the race of either party or, for that matter, their marital status.

But in the popular imagination logic plays no part. It is as if the divorce MUST somehow be linked to the shooting. It is as if these divorces are moral lapses and that one moral lapse must lead to another. In the insurance industry, they thought it would lead to auto accidents and in the crime-stopper biz the thinking appears to be that it would connect, somehow, to a shooting.

But this is a standard we apply only to women. We never refer to men by their marital status or the number of times they are married. I, for one, have no idea if Jordan himself was ever married before and I have never yet seen a man described in the newspapaers as a "white divorce." It is a description that would fit, among others, Ronald Reagan.

The reason for this is that divorce, marriage -- all that stuff -- is about sex and when men are concerned there are thought to be more important things. There is what they do and what they believe and who they are -- titles and that sort of things. With women, though sex is thought to be the whole story, almost all you need to know as if the "essential" truth of a woman's character is the answer to the old question, "Does She or Doesn't She?"

It's almost always the wrong question. It tells you nothing of importance, is never asked of a man, and, in the case of Martha Coleman, is entirely beside the point. There's only one question that matters and it has nothing to do with her divorces. It has to do, instead, with the shooting.

What does she know?