Sex discrimination by the insurance industry has evolved into one of the most important issues women should work to change on the national and local levels, said speakers at the Maryland state conference of the National Organization for Women.

About 130 women and a handful of men attended last Saturday's meeting in Hagerstown, at which state and national leaders listed as their top priorities the defeat of President Reagan in 1984 and the new battle against insurance discrimination.

Insurance became a NOW issue last year, national president Judy Goldsmith said in her keynote address, after the insurance industry advertised heavily for the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment. Subsequent NOW investigations revealed "the extent to which the sex bias system used by insurance companies discriminates against women is immense. . . . If we had ERA, this wouldn't be allowed."

Legislation now before Congress to ban discriminatory insurance practices is encountering stiff opposition from the insurance industry's advertising and direct mail campaign, Goldsmith said, but "actions" by NOW groups across the country are ensuring that "our message is getting out there in spite of the fact that we cannot dump $2 million on the media in a few days."

At the state level, the Montgomery County NOW is among the chapters that have formed insurance task forces, chapter president Marie Helen McGlone said.

"Because the insurance industry is regulated at the state level," McGlone said, "the lobby is very powerful." Antidiscriminatory legislation has been introduced into the Maryland legislature for the past three years but has never gotten out of committee.

"Insurance is a massive industry. We have to educate ourselves first," McGlone said, citing such little-known practices as forbidding married women, on certain life insurance policies, to buy more coverage than their husbands carry, regardless of their own earning power.

Even auto insurance, often touted by the industry as an area where women get a break, is no bargain, McGlone added. Studies using the industry's own data and validated for Congress by the General Accounting Office have shown that rates for women might actually be lower if sex were removed as a rating factor.

"Until now," McGlone said, "no one knew how women were being discriminated against. At the state level, we didn't expect much reaction the first year. We have a five-year perspective."

The "major and powerful opponent" of such women's issues as this, Goldsmith said, is Reagan, whom "NOW is committed to removing from power."

But even as the larger political issues heated up at the conference, many leaders, especially from more rural areas, said they had come for help on more basic issues.

"The consciousness level of people in a rural community is not very high," said Katheryn Cannon of Cumberland, president of Allegany County NOW, which has 32 paid members and only a dozen active ones (compared with a total of 6,000 NOW members in 14 chapters across the state).

"The newspapers will not print things in the form we give it to them. People are afraid of NOW. So we get involved in the smaller things we feel we can handle. We helped a woman get a job she was refused as a volunteer firefighter. We had a seminar on feminism and religion by two female ministers. That was very popular. We have a very religious community."

"It's not so much that the issues differ," said conference coordinator Sherry Koontz of Hagerstown, "as how you deal with them. In a more conservative county like this one, you're involved in educating and awareness and only then in making changes."

Even in more liberal areas of the state, progress is slow, leaders complained. "It's different on the surface," said Montgomery's McGlone, whose chapter has more than 800 members. "But as soon as you get beneath it, you find it's not much different than anywhere else. ...There still is not a basic understanding that women are equal."

Nevertheless, Ellen Widoff of Kensington, new state NOW president, agreed it might be easier to be a feminist in Montgomery than elsewhere.

"Montgomery County has many women legislators," Widoff said. "Our local president has access to the press. We never think twice about what we say. But out in Carroll County the president has to be very careful what she says. Otherwise she starts getting phone calls, and people start saying things to her child."