The resignation of Elizabeth Dole as secretary of transportation was foreshadowed by a front-page story in The New York Times that the event, like Christmas, was actually coming. The resignation itself got front-page treatment in The Times, and other newspapers, and made all the evening news programs. Liddy Dole is not your average secretary of transportation. In fact, you are challenged to name another.

For Dole, the leaving of her office was much like her tenure in it. It was glamorous, celebrated and, by and large, accepted on her own terms. Having gone from Democrat to Republican, from consumer advocate to industry champion, she achieved little in auto safety and leaves behind a national airline system that's an airborne slum. For this, she is either hailed or not criticized and always praised for a dazzling smile.

For a long time Liddy Dole has occupied the fault line between feminism and traditional womanhood. A Harvard Law graduate, former White House aide and 21-year veteran of government service, she has been lauded as a prominent and successful career woman and has been patronized as a mere woman. Together with her husband, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, they are Washington's foremost power couple: they both have their powerful jobs, and they both have eachother.

Feminists ought to ponder the popularity of Liddy Dole. By all accounts, it is enormous. Her husband's campaign organization can hardly wait to get her on the hustings, where, apparently, a flash of her smile is enough to convert the heathen to Bob Dole's cause. But her popularity can hardly be based on her accomplishments in government. In the first place, they are relatively unknown. And in the second place, they are minimal. Dole has always been judged by a different standard -- woman first and government official second. Rather than fight this sexist assessment, she seems to have accepted it.

Who, for instance, expects Liddy Dole to be questioned about her tenure as transportation secretary while she campaigns for her husband? Who in his campaign anticipates that she will be asked to account for the mess in the air, her failure to bring the air-traffic-control system up to snuff -- her inability to address the problems caused by deregulation? Who will ask her about her refusal to apply auto-safety standards to light trucks and minivans? The answer is: no one. After two decades in high government positions, she will be nothing less -- and nothing more -- than the candidate's wife.

There's a hint that Dole understands that she has cut a deeply compromising deal. In one published account of her resignation, friends said she found it ''curious'' that she was pressured to step down to avoid a conflict of interest, while the candidates themselves were not. George Bush, after all, remains both a presidential candidate and vice president. A gaggle of other candidates remains in Congress; and Bob Dole, the hubby, gives no hint that he is about to resign his Senate seat because he is seeking the presidency. Only Liddy Dole is said to have a conflict of interest, although no one has yet spelled out precisely what itis. Couldn't she improve the nation's airline system while being the wife of a presidential candidate?

By her resignation, so do we know her answer. Ultimately, all decisions of this sort are deeply personal. It is true, as Dole said, that she swapped one cause for another -- transportation for her husband's presidential campaign. But as the highest-ranking woman in the administration, and certainly as its most visible, Dole has forsaken yet another cause: that of women achievers. To neither her husband's campaign, nor to the people it wants to attract, do the real accomplishments of Liddy Dole matter very much. Instead of being the person who might have brought the airline system out of chaos -- no mean achievement and one worth crowing about -- she will become ''the wife'' and maybe, God forbid, champion a stereotypical ''women's'' issue such as highway beautification or drug addiction.

The problems of two-career couples are real, sometimes painful and occasionally insoluble. No one can set rules for them. But by her resignation from the Cabinet, Liddy Dole has said that in her case the ceremonial role of campaign wife takes precedence over the substantive one of administration official -- that her smile is worth more to her husband's campaign than anything she could do as transportation secretary.

The real conflict of interest was never between Bob Dole's campaign and her Cabinet post, but between traditional views about a woman's role and the one Liddy Dole forged for herself. In the end, she didn't just resign. She sold out