The sad little middle-aged woman from Virginia was frantic when she reached the Women's Legal Defense Fund at the end of a long line of telephone calls for help. She was a housewife, having quit her job at her husband's insistence when they married 10 years ago. During the marriage, her husband's affairs, physical and verbal abuse and growing alcoholism tempered the joy of having several children. By the time she telephoned she'd been recently deserted, her husband's only farewell a note that the mortgage was overdue.

She knew neither her legal rights nor the ins and outs of legal separation, child support and custody. She'd been out of the job market for so long that she was virtually unemployable. The WLDF's Emergency Domestic Relations Project offered the kind of sympathetic, nonjudgmental help she needed, and became an advocate in her behalf. They referred her to a social service agency and helped her find a lawyer she could afford. They counseled her. They told her, for example, that she was a prime candidate for alimony, at least temporarily, until she could update her skills.

This woman's plight has come to symbolize for me the fallacy of the Reagan administration's proposal to make groups like the WLDF ineligible to receive contributions from the combined federal campaign, the main vehicle for charitable giving for federal workers.

The campaign only recently has been expanded to include organizations that have made legal efforts to improve conditions of American women and minorities. Now Donald Devine, the New Right activist who heads the Office of Personnel Management, wants to disqualify charities that litigate or advocate, and include only traditional "health and welfare" providers. The loss of $60,000, which the charity gave WLDF for its battered women's shelter and the domestic relations project that helped the Virginia woman, would put those programs out of business. Many organizations responding to the needs of women and minorities -- including the vital NAACP legal defense fund -- also would be disqualified from participating in the $82 million campaign.

This campaign is the equivalent of the old community chest, and federal employes give their own money to the charity of their choice. How can the government tell these workers what they should do with their own money through a charity apparatus that is supposed to be their own? If Ronald Reagan can decide who will be the recipient of his admittedly low level of tax-deductible charitable contributions (he insists that most of his charity in recent years went to individuals and could not be written off his taxes), why shouldn't federal workers have the same right?

One part of the problem is the narrow definition that many people have of charity. They think it means exclusively direct health and welfare services. But a group like the Womans Legal Defense Fund is really a charity because it works to "aid those in need," like the Virginia woman, and that's a definition of charity straight out of Webster's.

Charities are extremely limited in providing anywhere near enough social services to match the need. For example, United Way's $1.53 billion income is about one-seventh the size of one federal program -- food stamps. So a more effective way to use scarce private money is by functioning as these groups do: working on public policy by making government programs and businesses work better, and by supporting self-help, community controlled organizations that do much more for a poor community than provide social services.

Devine's proposal defies logic if anyone takes seriously the preamble of the Constitution "to promote the general welfare" of our citizens. There is a blatant ideological motive lurking under the rationalization of eliminating grooups that are "politically oriented," and it aims to cut out those groups Devine disapproves of. To deny federal workers a full range of choice certainly endangers the income of the legal defense agencies and it certainly unfairly curtails the freedom of the federal work force, but even more ominous is that the government would seriously overstep its bounds in an utterly wrong direction. It would use its muscle to become the arbiter of social conscience.