In defeat, Patricia Roberts Harris, who had heaped achievement on accomplishment only to meet rejection at the hands of the voters of the District of Columbia, seems still the proud woman of the campaign.

Three weeks after the primary election, in a two-hour interview, the first she has given since finishing a distant second to Mayor Marion Barry, Harris spoke in the strong, confident voice of the woman who had always been first, in grade school and in law school, as the first black woman to sit in the cabinet and the first black woman to represent the United States as an ambassador.

She talked in the sun room of her home last week, a copy of The New York Review of Books and an Audubon guide to birds (she is an occasional bird watcher) on the coffee table.

"Someone just called to ask about all this pain and suffering I'm supposed to be feeling," she said. "I told him there is no pain and suffering. I'm fine . . . It was worth doing. We set the choice and set it clearly. We proved that the solutions are out there. We offered proposals. The people chose not to adopt them."

Let her friends talk about how the long campaign leading to the Sept. 14 Democratic primary altered and softened this 58-year-old woman who, in the words of her campaign director, Sharon Pratt Dixon, "has always been poised to do battle in a difficult world." Pat Harris herself says she experienced no revelations.

The Rev. Pauli Murray of Baltimore, who was the first black woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest and has known Harris since she was a freshman at Howard University, says, "The real Pat emerged during this. Finally, she broke through all the defensive mechanisms she has had to build around herself in order to go through this lonely, lonely thing of being the first."

The 71-year-old Murray says that as the campaign progressed, she noticed a change in the Pat Harris she saw in newspaper photographs. "The old Pat, the young Pat so wide-eyed with wonder came back." To which her longtime friend gives a characteristic response. "It was just exhaustion," says Harris, "and I lost 10 pounds."

Harris, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development and former secretary of Health and Human Services, says she did not hunger to be mayor of this city.

"I wanted to be mayor in order to do what needs to be done," she said. "I wasn't burning to be mayor . . . There are few things I've burned to do in my life. I really wanted to be a lawyer. And I wanted to be in a president's cabinet . . . Despite what people would like to see that in me, I have not been a woman of burning ambition, but a woman who wanted to serve and lead a satisfying life."

As to what she will do next, Harris says she has received offers to teach, practice law, write, administer institutions -- all things she has already done -- and other "interesting, even off the wall" ideas that she declines to discuss.

"I will do that which gives me personal satisfaction . . . I've paid my dues," she says. "I've earned the right to decide how and when I will pay my future dues."

To those people who have suggested she find a place in Marion Barry's administration, Harris says crisply, "Fortunately, slavery has been abolished." But she adds that if she can be of service she will.

Barry telephoned several days ago, but Harris declined to discuss their hour-long conversation. Barry's press secretary, Annette Samuels, said he called to request Harris' support for "his candidacy in the name of unity for the Democratic party. He also discussed her possible role in the future, with regard to the city -- nothing specific."

Harris' response, Samuels said, was cool: "She did not appear to be interested in either one of those things at this time."

The ex-candidate has not lacked for tasks to undertake. The day after the election, Dixon reported that Harris was already talking about a furnace that needed fixing, a chaise longue that needed to be cleared off. Harris spent the day on the telephone, thanking the necessary people. She refused all interviews, saying through Dixon, "This should be Marion Barry's moment."

Now, more than three weeks since the election, she has just about gotten through all the back issues of The New York Review of Books and New Yorker magazines that piled up during the campaign. She has started Andrew Greeley's "The Cardinal Sins" and compiled a list of great books to re-read, among them the works of Aristotle, Plato, Proust and Emerson.

"It's really very nice, not terribly organized," she said. "It touches the other side of me, which I have not been able to deal with for the last four or five years. It's important to tie in history and culture, not just public policy."

Since the election, she has seen one movie, "E.T.," the summer's smash hit, which she dismissed as "a nice little movie, which didn't offend me . . . But a great movie? 'E.T. phone home?' I was raised on 'Fantasia.' "

She has museums to visit, theater to attend, antique auctions at which to bid. And she has, once again, time to spend with her husband of 27 years, William Beasley Harris, a federal Maritime Commission administrative judge. A long overdue vacation may be upcoming.

In the hallway of their tastefully decorated home that overlooks Rock Creek Park is a guestbook for visitors to sign. The entry dated October 8, 1981 stands out: The bold, distinctive signature belongs to Marion Barry, who had come calling on Patricia Harris to find out if she was going to oppose him. Six months later she declared her candidacy, shocking some of her friends, among them Flaxie Pinkett, a prominent businesswoman.

"I've known Pat since 1941, and that was the first unwise decision I've seen her make," Pinkett said recently. "I told her, 'Honey, you don't know what you're getting yourself into.' " Pinkett, a former Democratic National Committeewoman, says the political arena is the only one she ever detested. "It's ugly, it's unfair, it's illegal, and it's under the table."

She nevertheless supported Harris and was there until the end. "I said to her, 'Pat, the community got what it wanted, and that's what the community deserved.' She said, 'Amen.' "

Harris, who maintained from the beginning that she was not a politician, says she did not relish the campaigning, the pressing of the flesh, the hurried meeting of the voters outside the subways and the supermarkets.

"I do not enjoy the core process, which is saying to people, 'Vote for me because you just touched me,' " she said. "I like people to think. The idea that you want people to feel, not think, runs counter to my basic beliefs about democracy -- that people ought to think. I worry about people who vote for me because they shook my hand. The question should be 'Who can do the best job?' "

But the campaign had its uplifting moments. Harris recalled with pleasure the meetings she had with black women with whom she identified strongly, one with a group of custodial workers, the other with women who live in public housing near Fort Dupont Park.

"Those people really want to make it better," she said. "The system doesn't care about those people . . . They are women who are basically used by society. We have a lot in common . . . I care about those women. That's why I'm such a threat."

There are those, even among her close friends, who view the mayoral election as the first big loss for a woman known as a winner, a star, a success. But Patricia Roberts Harris says those people see only the peaks, not the rejections, the disappointments, the obstacles.

"I've spent my life losing," she said. "I've spent my life working to end segregation. The first years of my life I was unable to travel because of segregation. I was unable to do what I wanted to do because I was black and female."

Her life, she said, has been not so much a series of successes as it has been a struggle: "It has been a lifetime of getting over barriers."