A MONTH BEFORE the Democratic National Convention, the president of the National Organization for Women, Judy Goldsmith, sent a memo to her deputies that began: "Urgent!!! Urgent!!! Urgent!!! Urgent!!! Subject: Woman vice-president. This is an alert that requires your immediate attention."

If the message sounded impatient, apparently it paid off. Thirty days later NOW, the biggest and best- known feminist organization in the nation, which jumped into the presidential political fray for the first time this year by endorsing Walter F. Mondale, would take much of the credit for his decision to select Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro (D-N.Y.) as his running mate.

After a defeat two years ago in its attempt to win ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, NOW approached the 1984 election campaign in a mood to gamble -- givig up relatively safe status as an outside pressure group to become for the first time a formal player in national political campaigns. And why not? In its 18 years, the organization had achieved indelible marks of political success: 250,000 members, 751 local chapters, 80 political action committees and an annual budget in excess of $10 million.

Having advertised these tools of power, Goldsmith proclaimed to the Democratic delegates in San Francisco after a woman was nominated as vice president, "This country will never be the same again."

Neither will NOW.

For NOW's successes have had costs. Civil rights and the labor organization began as social movements, just as feminism did. Organizations such as the NAACP and the AFL-CIO gained power by institutionalizing their respective movements. Their critics also claim they have lost power by taking causes that started as matters of great passion and bureaucratizing them. One of the questions facing NOW is whether it will face a similar fate.

"They're torn between tactics and they are stuck," says an active member of another feminist organization who knows the NOW leadership well. "The whole problem is the transition of a machine built on emotion and idealism into a political role."

"In the end, NOW is feminism impersonalized . . . institutionalized . . . professionalized, dominated by a small group of full-time activists," L.A. Kaufmann, an active feminist, wrote in The Progressive earlier this year. "It is successful feminism, undoubtedly vital to the larger feminist movement, but it is limited feminism."

Even apart from recent events, NOW's political ascent has been accompanied by criticisms in feminist circles that the organization is arrogant, myopic, and bureaucratic. At NOW's annual conference in June, some members of local chapters complained that the national organization had betrayed its roots by becoming autocratic and, worse, "paternalistic." Radical feminists believe the organization is too conventional and strait-laced, having forsaken social issues such as lesbian rights and sexual violence in favor of political tactics, direct mail, and lobbying on matters more acceptable to the political mainstream.

Perhaps an emblem of its success, NOW is even fraught with political infighting -- so much so that clashes between the radical old-guard and the more conventional new leadership at times have given the impression that NOW specializes in political intrigue more than in feminism.

"Sisterhood," for example, was hardly at work when Ginny Foat, the ambitious former president of the California NOW chapter, was indicted on murder charges, tried and acquited in New Orleans last year. Some feminists believe the murder charge would never have been brought if the accusations against her hadn't surfaced as part of a smear campaign by Foat's jealous rivals in the organization.

For NOW, all of this is part of an awkward stage of adolescence, borne of the organization's tremendous success and its undisputed importance in the modern women's movement.

This stage also results in part because the attitudes of women have changed markedly since the organization was formed in 1966. During the past decade women began leaving the home in unprecedented numbers to enter the workforce. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 63 percent of American women over 16 now work, compared to 31 percent in 1954.

Today, young women take for granted that they can enter professional careers and have families, that doors are wide open to opportunities in education, business, and government. Even without the ERA, women have found handy weapons in laws such as Title IX, which outlaws sex discrimination in federally funded programs. It has been used to fight discrimimination in areas ranging from educational opportunities to hiring and firing policies and, by allowing women to have equal opportunities in athletics, was responsible in part for the strong showing of American women in this year's Olympic Games.

These legal avenues and the increasing visibility of women in positions of power and prestige have deflated some of the initial crusading fervor of groups such as NOW. Although the feminist agenda is not fulfilled, particularly given the defeat of the ERA and the Reagan administration's efforts to weaken Title IX, feminism has made visible strides.

There are 24 women in Congress compared to 11 in 1971; there is a woman justice on the Supreme Court; Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe took home equal prize money when they won the U.S. Open Tennis Championships last month; women run corporations and oversee multimillion dollar financial transactions; a woman is running for vice-president as the nominee of a major political party. Although the debate over abortion continues, the Supreme Court's decision in 1973 that abortions were constitutional was a victory for women who put a priority on control over their bodies. And ironically, that ended up depriving feminists of one of their most potent political causes.

With many women now assuming they will successfully combine professional careers with motherhood, women's political attention now focuses on economic and domestic issues: pay equity, day care, insurance discrimination, pension reform, and spousal abuse -- issues more relevant to the immediate lives of working women.

These concerns, although not new to feminist organizations, are suddenly more visible to the public and reflect a burgeoning in the past decade of women's lobbying, political, and educational groups with narrowly focused agendas.

The Women's Equity Action League, for example, is a 10,000- member organization that specializes in research and lobbying on economic issues such as pay equity, insurance discrimination, and pension reform. The Older Women's League, also a lobbying group, focuses on Medicare and Social Security. The National Abortion Rights League devotes most of its energies to fighting for choice on abortion. The 77,000-member National Women's Political Caucus, founded in 1971 and probably the best- known feminist organization after NOW, is the leader in calculating electoral strategy.

This explosion of women's groups has put NOW in a peculiar position. While NOW has built a huge (and predominantly white, middle-class) membership around emotional issues such as abortion and the ERA, these other groups have demonstrated greater "expertise" (and in some cases political effectiveness) on specific feminist issues. Consequently, NOW's survival to some degree has come to depend on its ability to be associated with highly visible crusades -- the ERA, the presidential campaign, the selection of a woman vice-presidential candidate.

"They have a lot of marchers, lots of rallies, lots of people who want to do an emotional hit and run," says an official at a feminist organization in Washington that is more directly involved in behind-the-scenes electoral politics. "We could never get our members to put on green and white T-shirts and go to a mass demonstration. That is their role, not ours."

NOW's size and visibility has also lent an impression that it speaks for all feminists.

NOW political action committees do not finance candidates who do not have the "correct" positions on issues such as choice on abortion. There is a resolution pending before NOW's leadership that would ban speakers at NOW conventions who do not have like-minded points of view.

Feminists seem to agree that their organizations should not finance anti-abortion candidates (because they believe choice on abortion is part of woman's basic right to control her body). But they say banning speakers would convey an arrogant and faulty assumption on NOW's part that most women have similar points of view on such value- laden issues as abortion.

"Not only do they not speak for all women," one Washington activist said of NOW, "they think they are the feminist movement. It's been tough for them to accept that there are others and other roles."

NOW's performance before and during the Democratic National Convention was symptomatic.

NOW threatened a floor fight at the Democratic convention if Mondale didn't pick a woman running- mate. This angered feminists who feared that NOW, with all its newfound power and visibility, was promptly going to shoot itself in the foot and wound the women's movement in the process.

A coalition of feminist groups including NOW had been meeting for months to plot strategy for getting a woman nominee. NOW's floor-fight talk, never discussed in the coalition and coming at a time when public sentiment seemed to be shifting in favor of a woman candidate, was so poorly received that it became the genesis of a joke circulating in the daily women's caucus at the Democratic convention two weeks later: "How many NOW members does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" the joke began. "Three: One to screw in the lightbulb, and two to pull the chair out from under her."

NOW also suffers from residual criticisms over its role in the ERA campaign. For nearly a decade NOW invested most of its political stock in getting the ERA passed. As a result, it took some blame when the amendment was not ratified before the deadline expired in 1982. But it is clear that NOW's association with the ERA exposed a political weakness. The question arose: What would happen to NOW without the ERA crusade galvanizing its members?

While NOW's goals include a broad package of women's concerns, such as pay equity, day care, pension reform, insurance discrimination, and child-support enforcement legislation (bills that have been trumpeted by women in Congress, some of which passed this year), its most visible activities this year have been in the national political campaigns.

"The purpose of this is to advance our issues," Goldsmith explains. "You can't move legislatively until you change the political landscape. We need to be more clearly specific between the relationship of our political activity and the issues. But to suggest that we had to hunt for an issue is insane. We do not have to look for an issue, but we do try to do the most to move women forward."

Happily for NOW and for other feminist organizations, this rocky evolution may be part of a larger success story. Says one long-time Washington feminist: "As organizations now, we are beginning to grow up and to have grown-up fights -- about whether we should be partisan or not or about whom to endorse, instead of about who gets their name in the paper."

"They (NOW) have come from being a handful of women in consciousness-raising groups to a political entity," says Pat Reuss, legislative director of the Women's Equity Action League. "In terms of a social movement, they are still in the baby stages. They're not there yet. Theyre on their way. There will still be some glitches and some dirty laundry aired in public."

Few feminists would dispute that NOW's gamble with Mondale and a woman vice-president paid off -- NOW's normal monthly registration of new members tripled in the 30 days after the selection of Ferraro.

For NOW, the question for the future is whether the current size, visibility, and power of the organization ultimately will be a vehicle for effective social change or merely the first signs of an institution that is growing too flabby, autocratic, and bureaucratic to fulfill its initial goals.

NOW officials hope 1984 will simply prove to be a baptism by fire.

An official of one national women's organization seemed to sum up it up best: "Our ultimate goal (as women's groups) is to put ourselves out of business. But we still can't deal with that. That's when the principle of what we're doing contrasts with a reality that is bigger than all of us. Mrs. America is coming around and she's coming around anyway. It's hard to admit that it isn't totally because of us."