A young woman carrying a symbolic torch of feminism came running into town and onto the cover of Time magazine exactly a year ago today as some 20,000 women gathered here to chart a course against sex discrimination.

In perhaps the most widely publicized women's gathering ever - financed with $5 million in federal funds - they adopted a 25-point plan of action calling for a federal commitment, billions of dollars in federal funds, and a nationwide drive by all to bring equality between the sexes.

The emotion of the moment was electric as the call went up for the right to abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, gay rights, and an end to double discrimination against minority women. "Houston" became not a place but an event, a turning point.

A year later, however, only modest gains can be counted in the effort to make the national plan of action a reality. And leaders concede that a growing public attitude against governmental spending, against deficits, against government itself may well stymie many crucial proposals.

"We didn't get the whole pie, but we expected more than a few slices of apple," says Dot Rivings of the League of Women Voters.

"It's not a backlash against the women's movement," adds Barbara Duke, a director of the National Organization for Women, from Austin. "We're a victim of the time."

But what remains from Houston, these and other leaders say, is a sophisticated, extensive feminist political network that can be so effective that many people credit it with having forced Congress' vote to extend the ratification time for the Equal Rights Amendment.

Too, the four-day national women's conference here changed the lives of many who attended it and proved crucial in evolving state legislation affecting women, in opening women's centers and homes for battered wives, and in advancing other small-scale but nonetheless important projacts in localities across the nation.

"It depends on what you mean by the women's movement," says Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman. "If you mean a 10-point program, no, the year has not gone well. But if you mean the movement of women from one place to another [in society] it has gone well."

"I think it's all gone our way," says a disagreeing Phyllis Schlafly, Stop-ERA leader who organized a so-called "pro-family gathering - a competing rally to the women's conference. "Part of the whole push is more federal power, more federal control, more bureaucracy."

"Prior to Houston it was difficult to describe the women's liberation movement. Houston made that definition very clear, and [showed] how anti-family it is," she says.

Specifically, the past year has been no additional states ratifying the ERA: gay rights laws voted down in several localities; tightened restrictions on federal funding of abortions, and the election of a Congress that seemingly will be even more skeptical of a new federal spending program than the last.

But Bella Abzug, the former Democratic House member from New York, and chairwoman of the National Women's Conference, cites legislative advances for women in pregnancy disability insurance, training programs for displaced homemakers, tax law revisions benefiting farm widows, health services for teen-age girls and more participation in athletic competition.

Abzug is now cochairwoman of the National Advisory Committee for Women, which was named by President Carter to assit, among other things, in advising him on the implementation of the national plan of action. Its members tentatively plan to meet with Carter this week to review the administration's progress on women's issues.

They are expected to praise such progress as increased numbers of women appointed to federal posts but cite shortcomings in other areas, such as shelters for battered wives and federally funded day care. "We got," says one leader looking over the past year, "a lot of things, but we didn't get the things that cost money."

In an interview, Abzug set what could well be the tone of any meeting with the president, whose advisers recently warned "there will be pain" in federal budget cutting.

Said Abzug: "We're not going to be asked to make a special sacrifice for the patriotism of anti-inflation. We're entitled [to programs], and we're going to demand them. We're going to have trouble, but we're not going to sit by while our daily existence is threatened."

But in California, tax cutting forced by Proposition 13 has begun to take its toll, and some county women's commissions have been eliminated or weakened by budget cuts.

Programs to help battered wives, alcoholic women and delinquent girls, among other programs, face questionable futures.A gathering of county women's representatives recently in Sacramento was presented with dark predictions for women's programs.

A common theme expressed there was the possibility of having to turn to more private funding and to increase use of volunteers - a twist for a movement that has often viewed voluntarism by women as a sort of unpaid exploitation.

Many women leaders see, too, a particular unemployment problem for women if the recession leads to "last-hired, first-fired" layoffs.

A number of women's group leaders see the biggest success of the past year as the 39-month extension of the time for ratification of the ERA. A record number of women were elected to office in this month's election, the National Women's Political Caucus reports, resulting in gains in ERA support in state legislatures that have not yet ratified the amendment.

Schlafly disputes that claim and points to an advisory referendum on ERA that failed in Neveda and a state constitution equal rights amendment that failed in Florida.

So it is today that both sides claim to represent the majority voice, as they did a year ago when, in front of more than 1,000 media representatives, they presented to the public their claim to be the mainstream of America and portrayed the other as the fringe.

So as many state delegations to the Houston conference gather for reunions over this weekend, and as Schlafly prepared for another "pro-family" rally in Fort Worth, that contest continues.