The emerging importance of women as a voting block showed up in Congress Wednesday when the Joint Economic Committee held its first hearing in eight years on the economic problems of women. It looked, for a while at least, as if the age of enlightenment had dawned with radiant impartiality, as male after male member of the committee expressed concern about women's economic troubles. Clearly, women in Congress have found allies, but at least one conservative remained true to his stripes, even as the administration's policies toward women lay savaged on the hearing room floor.

The committee heard from expert witnesses such as Ray Marshall, former secretary of labor; Dr. Barbara Bergmann, professor of economics at the University of Maryland, and Eileen Stein, former general counsel to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. They spoke of the employment problems of divorced mothers; of the elderly poor, most of whom are women; of the wage gap (women earn 60 percent of what men earn), of discrimination and occupational segregation that perpetuate the gap. They argued convincingly that the Reagan administration has failed to address these problems and has, in fact, aggravated them.

They catalogued in devastating detail the "feminization" of poverty--one out of every three female-headed households is poor, more than 5 million children live in poverty--and the harm being inflicted on these families by cuts in subsidized day-care and training programs that enabled poor women to get jobs; by the retreat from affirmative action; and by the drastic reductions in work incentives for welfare mothers.

"Much of what has been done to help women is threatened," warned Margaret Heckler (R-Mass.). RR ep. Frederick W. Richmond R (D-N.Y.) was particularly critical of the day-care situation. The United States, he said, is "the only industrialized country in the world that doesn't have universal day care." After Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.) testified, he asked pointedly: "Shouldn't you be using your enormous clout to educate this administration?"

She's been trying, she said.

The foolishness of some policies was vividly illustrated by Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Col.) when she described how important day care is to poor mothers trying to get training. "It's cheaper for taxpayers to subsidize their day care rather than subsidize the whole family on welfare," she said.

Chalmers P. Wylie, a conservative Republican from Ohio, gave Bergmann an opportunity to get to the heartlessness of the administration when he challenged her statement that the "Reagan administration has declared economic war on women." That, he said, was "a little ridiculous."

"Women need equal employment opportunity and we are doing the reverse," she responded. "Women need to get off welfare and they are being slapped in the face and told to get back on welfare. Women need to be trained and training programs are being cut."

"Not just for women," responded Wylie.

"You've just heard women need it more and the programs are most effective for women," she retorted. "Virtually every program of the Reagan administration has hurt women, particularly poor women." WW ylie, who recently exhibited his W concern for the poor with an amendment that curtails housing subsidies in areas with rent control, reached back for the last pitch. "What about the huge reductions in the estate taxes?"

"That," she responded, "will only benefit very rich women."

Minutes later Wylie was wondering why on earth employers wouldn't hire women.

"Tradition and the cost of breaking some of these patterns," Bergmann responded. "If you have 20 men in a shop and you bring in a woman it may create problems and even reduce productivity for a while. Employers don't want to do that. They have to be forced to do that. If we don't do something, we're going to have an increasingly economically depressed class of women and their children, and Mr. the Rev. Jerry Falwell isn't going to be able to do anything about that with all of his praying."

Wylie, who addressed Bergmann and another economist who testified as "Miss"--both hold doctorates and professorships--proved to be quite unreconstructed. "I," he announced in the end, "happen to be one of those men who think women are smarter than men."

No doubt some of his best friends are women, too.