It had been a bad public relations month for the U.S. Navy, with stories of sexual harassment at the Naval Academy, allegations of rape at a Florida base and calls for a congressional probe. Now, in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Harold Greene, it was about to get worse.

On the bench before Greene lay papers in a sex discrimination lawsuit filed in 1973 by about 130 women at the Washington Naval Yard. The Navy had been found at fault in federal court here in 1981. So why, Greene asked testily, was this lawsuit still alive as of that very day -- Oct. 23, 1990 -- and why was it that the Navy had yet to pay any of the women a dime?

"The only explanation that I have been able to come up with is that the Navy has decided, with the help of the Justice Department, to stonewall . . . and establish that the Navy . . . can discriminate against women," Greene said. "It may be similar to what is reported in the papers in the last few days about stonewalling, about rapes of women sailors in various Navy installations. Maybe that's the same kind of mindset that is at issue here."

In fact, Greene added, he intended to send a transcript of that day's hearing to the Controller General's Office, hoping somebody there could spur the Navy to settle the case.

Later, the judge said privately, he decided against it, concluding that was skirting too close to politics for a federal judge. Meanwhile, the case, Trout v. Garrett, lingers.

By the count of one of the plaintiff's attorneys, Washington lawyer John Karl, nine secretaries of the Navy have come and gone while Trout v. Garrett has wound its way through federal court here. Some plaintiffs have died, some have moved away and others have given up in exasperation.

The lead plaintiff, however, is still around, along with 71 of her fellow plaintiffs, all of them from the D.C. area. "We're wearing whiskers and spider webs," said Yvonne Trout in an interview last week. At 64, she works for the Navy as a computer operations supervisor, and is postponing her retirement until the case is settled -- if that day ever comes.

When Trout first filed a complaint against the Navy Regional Data Automation Center in Southeast Washington in 1972, her argument was simple: Women civilian employees at the computer operations center were clustered in the lower-paying jobs, not allowed to compete for promotions on the same basis as men, and evaluated by male superiors whose bias made promotions harder to get.

The Navy's attorneys disagreed. Spokesmen from the Justice Department and the Navy's public affairs office could not be reached for comment last week, but court papers show that the Navy argued forcefully that the realities of the job market, not sex discrimination, were responsible for the women's situation.

Navy lawyers argued that in 1972, there were more men in the labor force with experience in computer work, and they produced census data to support that claim. Because women were more likely than men to drop out of the job market to care for children, the Navy argued, the uninterrupted experience of male job applicants often was superior to that of women.

As for promotions, the Navy lawyers said, its employees were covered by civil service rules, and most of the women employees had transferred to the Navy's computer operations from other federal agencies with predetermined job classifications.

Both sides used statistics to make their case, using a mathematical formula known as multiple regression analysis. The formula is designed to estimate the effects of several independent variables on a single dependent variable, in this case, sex.

Lawyers for the women produced statistics showing that even taking into account other factors that might have affected salaries and promotions, such as education and experience, women in Trout's department in 1972 were paid an average of $2,700 a year less than their male colleagues.

The Navy argued that the plaintiffs' formula failed to take other relevant factors into account, such as the quality of previous work experience. Greene disagreed, and in 1981 ruled for the plaintiffs.

In 1983, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Greene's ruling about promotions, but said that the women had not proved their case on the hiring issue. The Navy appealed to the Supreme Court, which in 1984 voted 6-3 not to consider the case until it had been sent back to Greene for reconsideration.

In 1986, Greene issued another ruling. Even assuming the Navy was not at fault for discrimination by other federal agencies, he wrote, it had still failed to treat its women employees the same as men once it hired them. The judge assigned a special master to determine damages owed by the Navy.

Four years later, according to a transcript of the Oct. 23 hearing, the two sides are still arguing -- this time, about which formula to use in determining back pay for the women from 1970 to 1979.

Once that is settled, the special master must still determine which of the women need to put up more evidence in individual hearings. Still another dispute is whether back pay for individual plaintiffs should be calculated from 1979 to the present, said Karl.

He calculates that the Navy now owes about $1.2 million. But the prospect of a final settlement seems so distant that in last month's hearing, Greene compared the 17-year-old dispute to the contested will used by Charles Dickens in his novel "Bleak House" to satirize the 19th-century English justice system.

"This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means," Dickens wrote. By the time that fictitious case was settled, it had outlived all the parties and the estate had dwindled to just enough money to pay off the lawyers.

That's the sort of irony Yvonne Trout can appreciate. She may not collect anything from the case, thanks to Greene's 1981 ruling. In it, the judge held that she had not proved that she had been personally harmed by the Navy's actions, and that her problems at work were due to her abrasive personality, not her sex.

"May he come back in all his future lives as women," she responded in an interview last week. She is appealing her exclusion from the suit, but said she is resigned to the possibility that she won't benefit from the lawsuit that bears her name.

"I'm a footnote in a lot of casebooks," she said. "If I had known this when I started, I would not have started. I would have quit my job. But once you're in it, you've got to fight it to the end, or die."