All the statistics and all the debate about the gender gap do not begin to capture the fascinating reality of women's declaration of political independence. A couple of interviews during a reporting project here brought home to me how dramatic and pervasive that phenomenon is.

Ruth Anderson is a faculty member at the University of Northern Iowa, a longtime leader in the Waterloo black community and an official of the state NAACP. When I met her four years ago, she was sparking the drive for Sen. Edward Kennedy for the Democratic presidential nomination. This time, she is backing another liberal, Sen. Alan Cranston of California.

Perfectly predictable, you say? That's what I thought until I asked her what she thought about the Democrats as a whole. "The Democrats," she said scornfully. "They're running around like chickens with their heads cut off. The Democrats are a party without a cause."

What do you mean?, I asked. "They just remind me of chameleons, most of them," Anderson said. "Whatever you think of the Republicans, you know their position. The Democrats--you never know from one day to the next. I got so tired of their shilly-shallying I changed my registration to independent right after the 1982 election. I just said, 'A plague on them!'"

"I got tired of them just taking me for granted--as a minority group member and a woman. Every two years, they'd be around saying, 'Ruth, can you do this for us--or do that?' Never asked what I might want them to do for me or my community. I just decided to change my registration so the next time the Democrats came around, I could say, 'What makes you so sure I'm one of you? It just so happens I'm not.'"

Only a few weeks ago, when she decided to support Cranston, did she re- register as a Democrat. How long she will stay depends on how clear the Democrats are--this time--on their principles.

I had no more than absorbed that story when I heard another, even more remarkable. When I was interviewing in Waterloo four years ago, a real estate saleswoman named Maxine Tomlyanovich was heading the campaign of Rep. Philip M. Crane of Illinois for the Republican presidential nomination. She liked Ronald Reagan, she said then, but wanted to be sure there was another, younger, true-blue conservative in the race should Reagan falter.

Her life has changed in the last four years. A single parent when we had last talked, she had remarried, quit her job, and divided her time among classes at UNI, golf and tennis at the country club and managing the family real estate investments--a task that involved collecting rents from many families struggling through the recession. A month ago, her husband died, leaving her again on her own.

"I was the Queen Bee type of woman," Tomlyanovich said, "who made it on my own, working 60 hours a week selling real estate. I thought others could, too. I realize now not everyone can. It still bothers me to have women drawing ADC (aid to dependent children) without working for it. But it also bothers me to see women idling at the country club--while other women are stuck in dead-end jobs, drawing half the pay the men get."

I asked her, as I did everyone interviewed in Waterloo, if she wanted to see Reagan run again. "No, not necessarily," she said. "I don't like some of the women he's appointed." She mentioned, as an example, Dee Jepsen, who served until recently as Reagan's chief liaison on women's issues. "I worked for Roger Jepsen (a Republican senator from Iowa and Dee Jepsen's husband) and I like Dee. But Reagan should have someone who knows what's really happening to women--the poor and the rich, the ones who are divorced or widowed and are making their own way in the world."

If not Reagan, I asked, who would you like to see as president? "Maybe it would be better to have a Democrat in there," she said. "I never thought I'd say that, but, really, what do we have to lose? The last four years have changed me. When I went out picking up the rent money, I saw things I didn't see when I was just selling real estate. I never thought four years ago the economy would get this bad. There's a lot more poor people out there than I ever saw since I was a child.

"There's something else that bothers me," Tomlyanovich said. "Myself, as an investor, I hardly pay any taxes. That's wrong. I shouldn't have that many write-offs. And neither should the corporations."

By this time, as you can understand, my head was spinning. So who are you supporting?, I asked. "Fritz Mondale," she said. "I think he's more aware of what's going on."

If you had asked me four years ago about the odds on Ruth Anderson quitting the Democratic Party in disgust and Maxine Tomlyanovich switching from Phil Crane to Fritz Mondale, I would have said, "You're nuts."

But that's the way it is with women these days. Independent and unpredictable.