I have never been able to figure out why the New Right decided to mount its massive assault on the women's movement. The Red Menace always struck me as a far greater threat to the American way of life than working women and it has seemed almost irresponsible for the right wing to divert its energies from guarding the ramparts to fighting something as relatively benign as women working outside the home.

But it turns out that to some New Right men, at least, there is nothing benign about women working at all. It may not threaten the world as we know it, but it certainly threatens the world as they want to know it. By leaving hearth and home and embracing careers, it turns out American women have created a terrible problem for American men: the martini gap.

The crisis came to light at the New Right's latest training session in Washington this week. Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.) expressed the thought that careers for women can strain marriages. Then he said: "The guy likes to come home and get supper and a couple of martinis from a woman that sic is reasonably well rested."

This, I have to tell you, provoked some comment among working women I know.

"Well," said one, "at least they don't expect us to dress up in Saran Wrap anymore."

"Maybe," said another, "they'll let us knock off a couple of hours early so we can go home and rest before serving the martinis."

They are obviously the type who don't take the martini gap seriously. I, on the other hand, was so intrigued by Denton's comment that I decided to do further research. Here was one of the first solid pieces of evidence to indicate what was behind the New Right's opposition to the women's movement.

I had heard the talk from women who had worked in the South for the Equal Rights Amendment. I had listened as some concluded that what happened in the South to ERA was the same thing that had happened in the South to women's suffrage, namely that some Southern men cannot bring themselves to see women as equals. This was mere speculation, I decided, and actually rather base. After all, in this day and age, what kind of man would limit a woman's role in life to waiting on Mr. Wonderful? Despite Denton's comment, I decided New Right men, must be motivated by something nobler than the selfish desire to be waited on.

My research took me to Thunder on the Right, the book by Alan Crawford, a conservative who was formerly worked as an editor for such New Right publications as Young Americans for Freedom's journal and the Conservative Digest, the magazine published by New Right fundraiser Richard Viguerie. Crawford, who subtitled his book "the politics of resentment," tells of a conversation with Juanita Bartnett, an Illinois Republican who was once employed by a New Right organization. Conservative men, she told Crawford, "want their women barefoot and pregnant."

In the world according to Denton--who was among those especially honored at Phyllis Schlafly's celebration of the defeat of ERA--women won't have careers because that might interfere with their ability to be rested and ready with supper and martinis when their husbands come home. Some people are going to say Denton lives in a fantasy world, and others are going to say he's just plain sexist. He has clearly never been a housewife.

There is nothing restful about taking care of a home, vacuuming, doing laundry and dishes, cleaning bathrooms and kitchens, picking up toys, taking care of babies, refereeing sibling squabbles, driving children to their sports, ballet, music and religion classes, helping with homework, and feeding the dog. Few American women sit around watching soaps and eating bonbons, resting up for the big moment when the head of the house comes home.

More than half of American mothers work outside the home, and they work for the same reasons men do, namely to provide for their families. They are showing no interest in turning back the clock: the Census Bureau said yesterday that the number of working women has doubled to 44 million since 1960.

New Right men may resent it, but until they can get American employers to grant husband leave so working wives can go home early and chill the glasses, it looks like the martini gap is here to stay.