The best thing that can be said about the election is that it is over. The worst thing that can be said about it is that it reflects a backlash against the progress blacks made in the '60s and women made in the '70s. Black representation in the House dropped from 20 to 19, and the number of women remained the same. Sharing power does not come easily.

Women, however, made some inroads, and there is clear evidence that the gender gap continues to decide elections. Madeleine Kunin, a former lieutenant governor of Vermont, won the governorship there, giving the Democratic party claim to two women governors.

Only 42 percent of the men in Vermont backed Kunin, according to CBS exit polls, with 53 percent supporting her major opponent; women supported Kunin by a margin of 54 to 46, and she narrowly won.

The election underscores the difficulty challengers have breaking into the American political system: the key is money and the key to that is incumbency.

In the four Senate races where there were significant upsets of incumbents, the challengers were able to spend nearly as much money as the incumbent. The nine women who challenged incumbents for Senate seats -- six Democrats and three Republicans -- were badly outspent by their opponents.

In Virginia, Republican John W. Warner outspent Edythe C. Harrison by 4 to 1, for example. In New Mexico, Republican Pete V. Domenici raised nearly $2.2 million more than the $254,000 that Judith A. Pratt was able to raise. In Minnesota, Joan Growe, a three-term secretary of state, raised $1.2 million, but Republican incumbent Rudy Boschwitz raised $5.4 million. The one woman incumbent senator, Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.), raised 18 times as much as her opponent.

"Every one of the women running, except Kassebaum, were in tough challenger situations," says Rosalie Whelan of the National Women's Education Fund. "Incumbency is still the major controlling factor in politics. It's more important than party." What this means for women in politics in the future, she says, "is that they will have to make more challenges and raise more money and capitalize on the women that were brought into politics this year."

These include a former nun and lawyer, Republican Arlene Violet, who won the race for attorney general in Rhode Island, becoming the first woman ever elected to that post in any state. Two Democratic women won their races for lieutenant governor. The incumbent women in Congress -- with the exceptions of Katie Hall (D-Ind.), a black woman who lost her primary, and Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro -- were all reelected. In all, a record 65 women ran for the House, including 35 Republicans; 20 were incumbents. Two Republican challengers, Helen Bentley in Maryland and Ann Meyers in Kansas, won.

While the majority of women voters supported President Reagan, they did so with less enthusiasm than men. The ABC exit polls found an eight-point difference in support between men and women for Reagan, which in a close election could have been pivotal. The gender gap was decisive in the Michigan Senate race, where, according to CBS exit polls, 47 percent of the men supported incumbent Democrat Carl Levin and 49 percent backed Republican Jack Lousma; 53 percent of the women backed Levin, and only 46 percent supported Lousma. Levin won.

In Illinois, 48 percent of the men backed Sen. Charles Percy, the Republican, and 46 percent voted for his challenger, Rep. Paul Simon. Women, however, gave Simon 55 percent of their votes, with 40 percent going to Percy, who was defeated. In Massachusetts, John F. Kerry, a Democrat, got 45 percent of the male vote while his opponent Raymond Shamie got 53 percent; 58 percent of the women backed Kerry, and only 40 percent backed Shamie. Kerry won.

The emergence of a definable women's vote during the past several years has produced striking changes in the way politicians view women and their political concerns: the gender gap was in a large measure responsible for getting a woman on the Democratic ticket, for making child care a hot political issue in congressional campaigns, and for getting legislation passed in the last Congress to reform pension plans and to tighten child-support enforcement.

While the gender gap did not work miracles for the Mondale-Ferraro campaign -- indeed there is exit polling that shows the anti-Ferraro vote was as strong as a pro-Ferraro vote -- it was decisive in at least one gubernatorial race and three Senate races. If the backlash is there, so is the gender gap and the political establishment would be foolish to forget it.