This past Tuesday, Nathan H. Miller, a conservative Republican from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, absented himself during the final state Senate vote on the Equal Rights Amendment, and in so doing dashed whatever slim hopes there were for ERA's passage in Virginia.

The proponents' strategy depended on a vote from each of the 40 senators, and an affirmative tie-breaking vote from the lieutenant governor, Democrat Richard Davis, that would have produced the necessary 21 votes to send ERA to the House. With Miller not voting, the ERA failed despite a majority vote of 20 to 19.

Miller, who is paid $8,000 a year to represent his constituents in the Senate, says he had to go to Atlanta for legal business. The legal business, it turns out, was not some unavoidable court-ordered appearance. It was a private business meeting, which he says he was unable to change.

He claims his absence was not a ploy, and says the pro-ERA forces knew very well he was going to be gone and could have postponed the vote. Sen. Clive DuVal (D-Fairfax) says his forces figured the opponents would "pull somebody whenever we did it. There is no way you can compel someone to be on the floor when they are supposed to be."

Ploy or not, Miller is supposed to be working in the state Senate while it is in session, not on private legal business. His answer to this during a telephone interview was: "The world doesn't stop because the General Assembly starts," an answer that is in keeping with the generally cavalier code of conduct he has brought to his public life. This, after all, is the same Nathan Miller who wrote and voted for legislation producing multimillion-dollar bonanzas for his law firms' clients.

By sneaking out on his obligations to his constituency, namely to vote on legislative issues, Miller placed his personal business above the rights of citizens to representation and subverted the constitutional process of Virginia.

The same day that the Virginia Senate dealt a lethal blow to this phase of the women's rights movement, the National Training Group, a group of more than 60 women, was meeting in Washington in the kind of political training program that may well help change legislatures such as Virginia's, a goal that clearly has to be part of the movement's next stage.

The training program is designed to move women into policy-making positions in state and local governing bodies -- boards, commissions, bureaucracies and state legislatures -- and replacing policy makers who are unsympathetic to women's causes.

Sponsored by the National Women's Education Fund, the four-day program taught the women -- many of whom are present or former elected officials with extensive campaign experience -- how to train groups of women in winning at politics. The project, which has been underwritten by the Carnegie Corporation and the Revson Foundation, was described by Ann Crichton, a former mayor of Decatur, Ga., as "the best thing we've got going for us now."

Teams of trainers are already scheduled to spend two to four weeks in 10 areas of the country during the next two years educating hundreds of women on how to be effective politically. The fund will cosponsor training programs with regional institutions, and provide sophisticated training materials on how to select a female candidate and run a winning campaign.

The number of women in state legislatures has doubled to 12.1 percent since 1972. The goal of the training program, says Rosalie Whelan, director of the NWEF, is to enable women to move toward parity.

The vote in Virginia came after proponents argued on behalf of civil rights for women and opponents trotted out the old canards about homosexual marriages and unisex restrooms -- neatly overlooking the fact that these are hardly the rage in such states as Maryland, which passed a state ERA in 1972. Intensive lobbying, involving Gov. Charles Robb, failed to change the minds of the opponents. They had made up their minds years ago, a fact that underlines the importance of the NWEF training programs.

With the probable defeat of a federal guarantee of equal rights for women, it becomes all the more important for those committed to passage of the ERA to elect like-minded people to state office. If they cannot change the legislators' minds, they can change the legislators. Nathan Miller's seat would be a good place to start.