Beyond the decibel level of debates at the National Women's Conference in Houston this week, it's worth asking how women are doing at a level that really counts: winning political power.

Gallup Poll results suggest the political climate has never been more favorable for women. Seventy-one per cent of Americans believe the country would be as well, if not better, governed if more women held political office. Over 80 per cent say they'd vote for a qualified woman candidate for mayor, governor, representative of senator. The number saying they'd vote for a qualified woman candidate for president rose dramatically from just 31 per cent in 1937 to 73 per cent last year.

Yet in hard numbers, women's progress in winning public office has been excruciatingly slow. They hold little more than 5 per cent of all elected offices in the United States, according to the latest count - completed in 1975 - by the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University. A new count, now under way, is expected to show some gains but few startling breakthroughs.

There are only 18 women (of 435 members) in the U.S. House - one fewer than 14 years ago. There hasn't been a woman senator since 1973. Two women are governors: Ella Grasso (D-Conn.) and Dixie Lee Ray (D-Wash.) Though women compose 53 per cent of the voting-age population, they hold only 10 per cent of statewide elected positions, 9.1 per cent of legislative seats.

The last two yeas have shown sharp increases in women mayors and council members - but the base was only 5 per cent in 1975. In cities of more than 100,000, there are only seven woman mayors: Helen Boosalis (Lincoln, Neb.), Lila Cockrell (San Antonio), Corrine Freeman (St. Petersburg), Margaret Hance (Phoenix), Janet Gray Hayes (San Jose), Patience Latting (Oklahoma City) and Carole McClellan (Austin).

The obstacles to women's elective progress, in a nutshell, are men - and women.

The political parties, still dominated by men, consistently set obstacles in the way of women who want to advance from strffing envelopes to holding office, says Susan Tolchin, co-author (with Martin Tolchin) of "Clout: Womanpower and Politics."

Women are not part of the old-boy networks."

The smoke-filled rooms, bourbon-and-branch-water rites and all-night poker games exclude women from the fellowship and cronyism that seal the bonds of power," says Tolchin.

Thus if a woman wants to run for office, she has to prepare much earlier than male competitors to develope campaign expertise and build special group support. Without party support, she has to work much harder.

All too often, party hierarchies encourage women to run only in "throwaway" districts - those destined to produce losers. Once nominated, however, women sometimes make their breakthroughs by surprise wins.

And once a women gains an elective toehold, however minor, she may be well positioned for advancement. Carol Bellamy, the 35-year-old Brooklynite who toppled City Council President Paul O'Dwyer to become New York's Cinderella of 1977, previously represented in the state senate one of the roughest urban districts in the United States. In her new post, Bellamy will have formidable politiacl power - the commodity so often denied women.

Raising money is woman candidates' severest problem. They're rarely connected to wellheeled business or labor sources that launch male candidates. Women, often dependent on husbands for family income, view the money as "his" and won't spring easily for significant $100 or $1000 contriiibutions.

political activist Esther Coopersmith, who's raised more than $5 million for prominent Democratic candidates, pulled out all the stops to raise funds for Connecticut Senate candidate Gloria Schaffer in 1976. But neither businessmen, lobbyists nor prominent women would contribut; many dismissed the idea of a woman Senate candidate out of hand.

The important short-term gains for women will be at the local level, says Betsy Wright, executttive director of the National Women's Education Fund. The traditional entry point to elective office is close to home, she notes. More of today's women candidates are community-based self-starters; fewer slip into office as widows of officeholders. But the younger women, Wright says, are cautious about family responsibility. At least their children are grown, many will avoid the disruptive schedules of commuting to a state capital or Washington.

Polly Baca Barragon has operated effectively on school-tax, housing and corrections issues in the Colorado House after early experience in national Democratic and Hispanic AMerican politics. "In the 1980s," she says, "I'd like to run for Congress. But that decision has yet to come; I have two very small children."

"Local government can be the highest form of government because it can be responsive," says Liz Hair, chairman of the Mecklenburg County (Charlotte), N.C., board of commissioners. twice she's declined to run for Congress. But like Hair, many local female officeholders are active in associations of counties or municipalities that can be powerful state and national lobby forces.

Many women, in their first offices, earn poorly. The Tolchins found that the poorest paying legislatures are likely to have the most woman members. For example, women make up 27 per cent of New Hampshire's legislature, which pays $100 a year, the California legislature, paying $23,232 yearly, has only six women - in a state with high numbers of women in low-paying local offices.

Once elected, many woman report their male colleagues won't take them seriously and try to exclude them from importannt decision making. But that often permits them to catch the men unawares and get their way in legislative halls.

Women, says Tolchin, tend to be inhibited, don't like to operate in a power context as men do. Whether they should behave like men tortures many, she says. "They don't want to operate like men, but if they don't wheel and deal they won't get anywhere." Another problem, she says, is that many women politicians "study an issue - maybe to death - before taking a position."

But women do have strengths male politicians often lack. They're usuallly more accessible, more open, more sensitive to community needs. The women's movement, by sensitizing women to their individual worth and potential, has also politicized - tt o the horror of some of its leaders - right-wing women. But most woman politicians tend to be humanitarian, to support such feminist issues as publicly supported child care, the Equal Rights Amendment, economic equality and - except for the explosive abortion issue - reproductive freedom.

"Give me the most reactionary woman politician in the country," says Wright, "and I can point to something she thought of in behalf of women that wouldn't have been thought of if she'd been a man."

Backed by national organizations providing them campaign counsel, increasingly aware of their elective potential, the number of woman politicans is almost sure to grow. The mystery is whether the increase will be a trickle or a flood.