I have a friend who once said that the quickest way to pass the Equal Rights Amendment would be to send Ruth Carter Stapleton into Alton, Illinois, and have her convert Phyllis Schlafly. But, barring the possibility of a born-again feminist, she insisted that the women's movement desperately needed the services of a collector.

I never did ask her what a collector was because it had all those unsavory Mafia undertones.

But last week, just a month after the passage of the ERA extension, I watched the election returns coming in from across the country. The ERA referenda lost, not only in Nevida where it was expected, but in Florida where some hoped it would squeak through. Despite some victories for pro-ERA candidates in state races (including, ironically, key ones in Florida), it locks as if it's going to be a cliff-hanger to get three more states by June 1982.

So I called my friend back to find out what a collector is supposed to collect.

"Dues," she said abruptly. "Time, energy, money, work . . . Dues! Somebody's got to get cut there and find all the people who owe something to the women's-rights movement and tell them that it's now or never, one more for the Gipper, dues-paying season . . ."

Well, never mind the cheerleading. I think my friend has a point. The women's movement has always been lousy at both taking credit fot accomplishments and holding onto the allegiance of the people who've profited from it.

If George Meany behaved like that, he'd still be the head of a small local somewhat in the industrial northeast.

It's difficult for any movement as amorphous and massive as this one to saty together, and be coherent or consistent. Any group that is joined by discontent can be cast asunder by success or failure, confusion or exhaustion. The women's-rights movement has suffered from all of the above.

The core group has never found the proper glue to hold onto self-made women or to grasp the forgetful women. Nor have they been able to sign up all those who head for safety behind the line, "I'm Not a Feminist But . . ."

I'm not the only one who knows a "self-made" woman with a room near the top. She will talk about how hard she worked to get there, but not about how to make it any easier. She knows she wouldn't have been successful without her own commitment and competence. But she'd like to forget that she might not have been successful without a climate of acceptance, or the efforts of the women before her, some of whom got their spirits crushed trying to open the duers.

We also know women like the flight attendant I met recently who never learned, or forgot, history. This particular married mother of two had no memory of the days when flight attendants were stewardesses who lost their jobs for the sins of marriage or motherhood or maturity. When women forced the change, she was a teenager. But the point is that nobody ever collected her dues.

We know the others, too - all those who are Not Feminists But . . . They believe in equal pay for equal work or Social Security for housewives or just plain fairness. When they get a new right they use it, but not without criticizing the people who won it, for being, well, "pushy."

It's not that easy to round up these debts for the last push. It's always more comfortable to think that we've made it or can make it all on our own. It's certainly more pleasant to think that the rights that women have already won can now be taken for granted. We all have amnesia. Few of us bow in the direction of Susan B. Anthony's home when we go to vote.

But the job of a collector for the ERA is to "plug into" every woman who holds a job or benefits from a law she might not have had 10 years ago. To connect with every parent who wants or expects a better life for their daughters.

It's to take the rest of us - the successful, the forgetful, the inactive - on a mental guilt trip, to poke our sense of responsibility and matual self-interest.

It's a tough role, but the only legal antidote to a disastrous backslide. The only guarantee that we can take equal rights for granted is . . . three more states. Without taking up the collection of chits, anteing up the dues, these extra months can slip away as quickly as seven long years.