To President Reagan, the gender gap and the debacle with the International Federation of Business and Professional Women must seem like a bad dream. Here were 1,200 working women from 56 countries being turned away from a pre-arranged tour of the White House, which was bad enough. Then, when the President arrives at their convention, and offers a gracious, personal apology, something goes wrong again. They don't appreciate his humor.

The president, no doubt, was surprised at how the warm reception he received turned quickly into a chill. His appearance started out well. He quipped that he had considered jumping out of the third story window of the White House when he heard what had happened. Then, he said, he was going to "go back to the White House, find out who was responsible, put them on the window ledge and shove." That brought appreciative laughter and a round of applause.

Minutes later, however, there was stony silence when he referred to "women's place," and said "if it wasn't for women, us men would still be walking around in skin suits carrying clubs."

Judy Schub, head of BPW's public policy division and its chief Washington lobbyist, later called the remarks "almost unbelievable. He did not know who he was talking to. 'Women's place' are almost code words to people who are conscious of the fact that women's place has been subordinate economically and socially for too long. We don't want to be protected, we don't want to be viewed as the civilizer, the hand that rocks the cradle, because the facts are we don't control. We are at the control of men in the political process and certainly economically."

The BPW has 150,000 members, the majority of whom are Republican. But the gulf between the president and at least some American working women became apparent moments after he left. Far from being flattered or placated by the president's attention, Polly Madenwald, the new president of the National Federation, held a press conference and announced that "apologies are not enough."

"Yesterday's action and today's apology is another example of this administration playing catch-up," said Madenwald, a Republican, from Oregon. "It is an example of this administration's insensitivity to working women and it is an example of this administration's refusal to take us seriously."

Madenwald made it clear that women in her organization won't be won over by appearances, even presidential ones. First, she said, BPW wants the Equal Rights Amendment back in the GOP platform; second, it wants the president to support measures to eliminate sex discrimination in insurance, and third, it wants him to support the Economic Equity Act, an omnibus bill that ranges from tougher child-support enforcement to pension reform.

Last week, some 2,500 delegates to BPW's annual convention in Columbus, Ohio, voted unanimously not to support any candidate that does not back the Equal Rights Amendment. Women from every part of the country, including women who had not had activist roles in the organization previously, rose to speak in support of it, according to Schub. She said the organization has been rapidly politicized in the past three years. "They understand the rights we've fought long and hard for are tenuous, that we can lose them either through congressional action or because an administration is not willing to enforce the law," she said.

More proof of that came the same morning. While the president was trying to recover from the BPW debacle, the morning paper brought the news that his Justice Department has filed a brief with the Supreme Court that reverses more than a decade of strong federal commitment to ending sex discrimination in education. The administration is placing a narrow interpretation on the law so that only a specific school program that receives federal money would have to agree not to discriminate. Housing, academic, athletic and other programs that don't get direct federal money would be freed from federal sanctions under which they have operated since 1972. So much for "women's place" in education.

What happened with the BPW women was unfortunate. The president made a nice try at recouping that didn't quite come off. But that is nothing compared to the outcry that is going to occur if the administration takes a stand that would leave millions of women with no protection against sex discrimination in the schools.

That will transform the gender gap from a bad dream into a recurring nightmare.