So Pat Schroeder isn't going to run for president after all. Maybe it's just been a bad week, but I'm starting to feel pretty cynical about the kind of examples our most famous elder sisters are setting for us young women.

Remember "role modeling," in the feminist sense? The argument was that no matter how often you were told intellectually that you could be anything you wanted to be, you were most likely to dream of filling the kind of roles, leading the kind of lives, that you had seen being filled and led by people like yourself. This didn't mean that strong, motivated women couldn't make it as pioneers, but simply that -- a truism -- kids have trouble imagining themselves leading lives they don't know anything about. Seeing a female congressional representative, or a female candidate for vice president, gave girls a plausible and vivid sense of what such a life would be like. A young woman seeing Gerry Ferraro or Pat Schroeder or Elizabeth Dole on TV would need much less imaginative exertion to picture the details of her life, her worries, her day, her childhood, than it would take to put herself in the shoes of a Dick Gephardt. Different body, different background, different rites of passage.

So, as we were saying . . . Gerry Ferraro, Pat Schroeder, Elizabeth Dole. Hmmmm. As disappointing role models go, the first was the worst, of course. I was newly out of college in July 1984; I watched the Mondale/Ferraro announcement on TV with my mother, and we sniffled and exulted like everyone else. Ferraro's Diet Pepsi commercial punctured the romantic idealizations of the pioneer. To my mind, though, Ferraro did something much worse later. In her infamous whiny book, she said that if she'd known beforehand how hard it was going to be, she wouldn't have done it. Wouldn't have done it! Regretted making her tremendous personal sacrifice for this tremendous cause.

I'm sure there are many male politicians who regret the sacrifices they've made. But these men aren't our heroes. Ferraro was supposed to be. Instead, her slide downward after the campaign evoked classic denigrations of women: she wasn't tough enough, she pitied herself, she didn't know anything about her husband's business endeavors.

Young women trying to formulate lifetime ambitions are, unfortunately, a bit touchy about these particular penumbras. Feminism offers hypotheses we hope to prove in our own lives: that women are capable of anything men are in the career arena; that women and men may have differences, but we don't know what they are, and needn't confine women to certain life styles on that basis. Starting out on our own paths, we long to see those hypotheses proven in public.

When Ferraro fails to, we look about elsewhere in the public sphere. And there we find Elizabeth Dole, prominent, intelligent, independent, publicly implying that no matter how much you love your job, and no matter how important you feel that job is to the running of the country, no less -- let alone some kind of minor gratification like financial independence, or ambition, or adding to the world's store of knowledge -- you still will eventually face the choice whether to keep that job or do your full duty to your husband. "It was my personal choice," Elizabeth Dole declares, meaning that it is impossible to do both.

Just as you console yourself with the thought that, after all, that's the Republican Party, comes Schroeder's announcement that she will not seek the nomination. I didn't necessarily want Pat Schroeder to be president. But for all the reasons that she herself put forward -- her seniority in Congress, her leadership on issues not necessarily in the public eye, her activism on issues that are, such as military reform -- I also didn't see why her presidency should be considered automatically out of the question. She wasn't the leftmost of the various declared and undeclared candidates, nor the least known, nor the least experienced. Everyone made much of the question of whether she would run "as a woman," as a women's candidate, or as a mainstream candidate with experience on nonfeminist issues. I could never figure out why these two different points implied a contradiction. (Is it a contradiction for Albert Gore to run as a southerner and as an arms-control specialist?)

With all these strong reasons to run, Schroeder went with the reasons not to. They were reasons that carried those same unmistakable associations of gender. She said in her statement that the highest level of political campaigning wasn't personal enough. "I could not bear to turn every human contact into a photo opportunity." She hated having to be in a public role every second -- something every politician above a certain level has to accept without undue grumbling. Instead of accepting it herself, Schroeder decided not to play. She even wept.

The one time I met Schroeder, I was outraged by the little frivolities that have been cited jokingly by those covering her brief non-campaign: the giggle, the smiley-face in the P of her signature. It seemed crazy, reckless, for one of Congress' few women to come across as less than dignified, to give ammunition to those who saw women as sugary little girls rather than serious people to be taken seriously.

The conjunction of Schroeder's withdrawal and Dole's produces the same frustration, the same worry. Older feminists sometimes complain that this generation of women is growing up "postfeminist," feeling entitled to every opportunity and not appreciating their sacrifices. Sure, we believe that we're as good as men. We've been taught that, we mean to prove it in our own lives, and this is surely progress. But there are still plenty of people out there who don't believe it. Can't we stop giving them ammunition? The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.