A FEW MOMENTS before she was to be gang-raped for several hours by three doctors, Carol DiPietro, a nurse, was as much in a state of mental disbelief as emotional paralysis. "Right up until the last minute," she told a reporter, "I kept denying it. I mean, my God, these were three doctors. Three professionals, educated people. I just thought they have to come to their senses. They just couldn't possibly do something like this."

Although this crime of violence occurred 13 months ago, in Rockport, Mass., it continues to remain in the news. In August, the victim, a 29- year-old recovery room nurse in a Massachusetts hospital, agreed to be interviewed in The Boston Globe. In late September a clamor of justified outrage occurred when one of the doctors (all three were convicted but are free pending appeal) tried to pull off an audacious hustle: landing a job at a children's hospital in another city without telling his prospective employers that he was a convicted rapist. Worse, two senior physicians at the Harvard Medical School wrote fine recommendations for the doctor. They also saw his rape conviction as a minor character defect not worth dredging up.

The story is newsworthy nationally. Its positive aspects -- the willingness of the nurse to speak out, the public anger about a doctor who apparently thought his MD degree entitled him to walk away from his crime -- reflect the increasing effectiveness of women and women's groups as they challenge the power of males, from actual rapists to male-dominated courts and legislatures.

By her courage in discussing her ordeal, Carol DiPietro has set a needed example for other women. According to federal figures, forcible rape is the nation's most rapidly increasing crime.

DiPietro's candor in the Boston Globe interview was a welcomed veering from the road of silence still traveled by large numbers of rape victims. Not talking about the degradation -- not to the media, for sure, but often not to police and not even to friends or family -- is a recognized symptom of women suffering rape trauma syndrome.

That someone is available to talk with represents one of the institutional gains of feminism in the 1970s. Ten years ago, few rape crisis centers existed. Currently there are 300, though many are struggling. In 1976, the National Center for the Prevention and Control of Rape was formed within the National Institute of Mental Health. Though funded for only $2.9 million in 1981 and recommended for no funding by the Reagan administration, the agency has been invaluable in helping the country understand more about rape. In the past four years, 57 research grants were awarded.

Recipients of one of them, researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan, recently reported what is a new and major benefit to rape victims: the reform of rape laws. In Michigan, in the three years following the 1975 passage of the Criminal Sexual Conduct bill, prosecutors have seen "a significant increase" in the rate of conviction in rape cases.

The new Michigan law has several innovations. Past sexual conduct of the victim is not allowed as evidence in the matter of consent and credibility; a raped prostitute is backed by the law as much as a raped nun. Resistance by the victim is not needed as proof against the charge, long cherished by defense attorneys, that the woman was "asking for it" by the way she dressed or walked; thus the rape victim, like the victims of other crimes, need not fight back the assailant to have a case against him.

Other states, according to Pam Klein of the rape crisis center at Southern Illinois University, have passed similar laws. She credits police departments and prosecuting attorneys with increased enlightenment in their attitudes toward rape victims. It is still far from a totally new day, however. Few state legislatures have done anything to criminalize the rape of wives by husbands. In California, when a marital rape bill was debated, one state senator, a male, argued: "If you can't rape your wife, who can you rape?"

That attitude, though seemingly based on nothing more than locker room macho, reflects the cultural essence of rape: weak men using sex violently to increase their power over women. The advances of the 1970s come down to that: a new and valuable awareness that the rapist is a power deviate, not only a sexual deviate, with sexual violence the most cowardly form of attack