The Reagan administration is taking great interest these days in the concept of equal pay for work of comparable value, a principle being articulated in various ways across the country as a means of correcting the gulf between what women and men are paid for their labor. Not surprisingly, the administration's interest -- prompted no doubt by a string of judicial and legislative victories by comparable-worth proponents -- is hardly benign.

In recent weeks, a member of the president's Council of Economic Advisers called it a "truly crazy idea," and Clarence Pendleton, chairman of the Civil Rights Commission, called it the "looniest idea since 'Looney Tunes' came on the screen." And the Heritage Foundation, a think tank that might well have opposed the American Revolution, has issued a report calling on the Justice Department to take a "more forceful position" against comparable worth.

There's no way of knowing how many people put stock in Pendleton's pronouncements, but the record ought to show that this looney idea was legitimized to some extent by the U.S. Supreme Court, which held in a landmark 1981 decision that gender-based wage discrimination suits are not limited to cases involving identical jobs. The court recently refused to review a court ruling that held that the jobs had to be "substantially equal," but it is unclear what that means for other comparable worth cases.

The idea behind comparable worth is fairly simple: proponents argue that historically women's jobs have been undervalued and the result is that jobs held predominantly by women pay less. The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences found: "Not only do women do different work than men, but the work women do is paid less, and the more an occupation is dominated by women the less it pays." Since the majority of women work in a handful of job categories, such as clerical and service, the wage gap cannot be corrected merely by forcing employers to pay equal salaries for the same work. Proponents argue that a reevaluation of predominantly female jobs is one way of reducing the wage gap.

So far, comparable worth cases have been brought in the public sector, with the largest involving the employes of the state of Washington, where U.S. District Court Judge Jack Tanner found widespread systemic discrimination in the way predominantly female jobs and predominantly male jobs were paid. He ordered wage correction and back pay going back to 1979, when wage discrimination was documented in a state study and the legislature refused to finance remedies.

The National Committee on Pay Equity makes the point that inaction by the state of Washington, after wage discrimination was documented, drove the remedial cost to the state up to more than 25 percent of its payroll. Minnesota, by contrast, also did a study of 762 civil service job titles in 1979 and found the same results. The state legislature began tackling the problem, a state task force was formed and it put together a report estimating the undervaluation of female-dominated jobs.

According to the National Committee on Pay Equity, the total cost of the correction was estimated at 4 percent of the state's annual payment. In 1982, the state legislature passed a bill phasing in the correction over four years, at a payroll cost of 1 percent per year. The money was distributed through the collective bargaining process. At last glance, the state of Minnesota was still there.

In 1979, the city of San Jose hired the Hay Group, a pioneering firm in job analysis and evaluation, to study its wage structure. Alvin O. Bellak, general partner in the group, later told Congress that the firm used an evaluation system that has been used by over 4,000 employers in 30 different countries. The analysis found substantial differences in wages of predominantly male and female jobs. After a highly publicized strike, San Jose agreed to incorporate comparable worth in settling on new wage scales. Comparable worth is coming under attack from predictable sources such as Fortune and Commentary magazines and the Reagan administration, and there is much talk of bankrupting municipalities and throwing the marketplace into a tailspin. The record in Minnesota and San Jose, however, does not support these claims. Where managed sensibly and in a timely fashion, comparable worth has proven to be a useful tool in adjusting historically depressed wage structures, therein enhancing the economic well-being and buying power of women and their families.