THESE ARE, as Dick Dabney said in his Dec. 6 article in Outlook, "bad times" for men. Why, as Dabney put it, have American men turned into "wimps?" He was not simply blaming militant feminism for men's rage. Nor was his subject, as Freud asked, "What do women want?" The subject was rather: What do men want, what do women want, and how can we get there without undermining the mental health of either sex and the state of society at large?

What men, who are now suffering and enraged, have to face up to is that for several centuries women were enraged and men failed to do anything about it. The way things were, especially in this country, went like this:

The man was the "breadwinner" who kept a wife at home, an unpaid housekeeper and child-rearer with no right to any of his earnings as long as he paid housekeeping costs. The wife forgave all his betrayals -- sexual affairs with, and money spent on, other women and, she sometimes suspected, other men -- for the sake of keeping the family together, for the children.

When the men wanted a respite from the family and the usual grind, they went off for a week or more to some interesting place on a business trip. Some husbands slept with unknown women from whom they brought diseases home to their wives; some gambled or drank heavily, were violent or threatening. With the blue-collar man it was weekends of drinking and hunting with the boys.

The wives of our tame white-collar men were expected to allow them to bring home their pressures from the office. These men, taking abuse from higher-ups at work, would walk in the door and dump their aggression on their wives. When a wife had just disciplined a child, the husband would undermine her by refusing to back her up, just to prove that he was boss at least at home. The men would allow their wives to play golf, join a garden club, stuff envelopes or answer phones as volunteers -- but they would get alarmed if the women showed signs of using their brains. The men found it necessary to consider their wives less intelligent.

This is generally the way it was. About 12 years ago, women started meeting and talking about all this. They talked of the methods they had to use to get the things they wanted, of how they had to manipulate, submit and pretend. Some talked about how they had reacted to their husbands' infidelity by having affairs themselves, some insinuating the old adage about the wise child that knows its own father.

Because their "manhood" could not have accepted it, and because they couldn't face up to the possibility, men decided that such things wouldn't happen as long as they kept the women at home. Such traditionally "masculine" men may have considered themselves, as Dabney said, strong, decent and self-respecting. But now that women have concluded that they, too, have the right to strength, decency and self-respect, there is no going back to the "traditional" family values that Dabney praised.

Yet the change goes well beyond the area of women's rights. Dabney's "wimp" is the product of an increasingly frustrating workplace, stripped of the complaisant, unprotesting "little woman" at home on whom the white-collar husband could dump his day's load of frustration.

I, and many other feminists I know, have no desire to see men "allowing themselves to be made into women" while suffering the kind of rage that brings on heart attacks and strokes. We do not approve of men being turned into cowed and humiliated wimps. But neither do we wish to see them cling to "outworn creeds of manhood."

One such outworn creed: that a man should financially support all the women who are part of his family -- his wife, sometimes an elderly mother for whom his father has failed to provide, sometimes a divorced daughter with children. It is all this responsibility and financial burden that really causes men to die before they should. This is why men should encourage women to develop careers and equip themselves to take responsibility for their own lives, or to survive if the "breadwinner" dies, leaving them with small children.

While we sympathize with the degradation that some men are suffering at the loss of "manhood," we know that we suffered degradation and rage, and that men did nothing about it. Women of my generation, while we feel no need to dominate men, have given up too much to see the clock turned back to that other "outworn creed of manhood" that equals man's domination of and intimidation of women. Not for my daughter and for future generations of women.

This whole business of "manhood" -- yes, and womanhood, for women must have self- respect too -- must be redefined. Manhood to me signifies a man worth having around -- a man who is not afraid to say no; who stands his ground when his own reasoned judgment deems it right to do so, but who knows how to cherish others and not be only self-centered; one who cares whether the woman he shares his life with is happy, and finds out why if she is not -- and to hell with other, less secure men who act otherwise. Most women feel no tenderness for cowards, for men who are ruthless, who idolize violence, who need to betray or show power over women.

As for womanhood, a woman's self-respect hinges on the need to be tender and caring and supportive of those she loves, while retaining her dignity and self-respect. Domination, intimidation and betrayal in its many forms by the man she shares her life with would make this impossible.

Those couples who have learned how to communicate fairly are the future. The future sanity of both men and women demands working on these male/female relationships, and on the dignity of both men and women in the workplace.