A woman fixed her husband a casserole for dinner, but he wanted steak. Enraged, he beat her, knocking out two of her teeth. Another woman stopped off to say hello to her husband at work. He assumed she was checking up on him and later beat her so brutally that she was hospitalized with a ruptured spleen.

These are only two of the stories told at the first National Conference on Violence Against Women, sponsored here last week by Metropolitan State College and the Denver Safe House for Battered Women.

Sociologists, psychologists and safe house administrators described an epidemic of violence against women and called for changes in laws and public attitudes.

Nationally, an estimated 5 million cases of wife-battering are reported each year, according to Sheila Deitz, assistant professor of psychology at Colorado State University. She said the total could be higher -- as many as one of two women.

But it's difficult to determine whether the violence itself is growing, or simply being reported more frequently "For so long, it's been kept in the closet. It's a good possibility that what we're seeing is a more accurate picture," Deitz said.

Conference participants proposed several measures to counter abuse of women:

Federal and state laws to decriminalize retaliation against abusers. If a shopkeeper shoots a would-be robber, he may not even be booked, said Florynce Kennedy, an author and attorney who was the conference's keynote speaker. "But when a woman shoots a man who has beaten her five-six times, she goes to jail."

A study of women inmates of Cook County jail in Chicago showed that more than 80 percent held for killing their spouses had been repeatedly battered, a Chicago sociologist said.

In recent years, however, women in South Dakota, Michigan, California, and Washington State have been acquitted of killing their husbands after evidence that the women had been battered was introduced at trial.

Laws to treat spouse battering as a crime no less serious than assaulting a stranger. Activists have been working with prosecutors to encourage cities, counties and states to bring charges, rather than leaving it up to women victims.

Community property laws to provide women with the possibility of economic independence that would enable a battered wife to leave her husband.

Lobbying to get anti-battering laws as an issue in next year's Democratic presidential nomination campaign. Kennedy urged women to become delegates to state conventions to promote the issue.

Allocation by governments of more money for safe houses for battered women. A few states add $15 to marriage license fees for shelter programs.

A boycott of products of advertisers who sponsor programs that ignore the subject of violence against women, or whose commercials demean women. Kennedy named Procter and Gamble, sponsor of a number of daytime TV dramas, as one boycott target.

Violence against women takes many forms, speakers said, citing beating, rape, incest, sexual harrassment on the job, pornography and jokes.

It is found at all levels of society and throughout all ethnic groups -- Anglo, black, Hispanic, native Americans and others. Allegra Perhaes, administrator of a shelter in Hilo, Hawaii, said brutal incidents of both wife and child abuse are turning up among Southeast Asian refugees in Oahu.

Psychologists say wife-battering tends to follow a cycle: tension builds in a relationship, then one incident triggers abuse. The batterer promises never to do it again, and the woman recognizes in him the man she married. Eventually, however, tension builds anew and the cycle repeats itself.

Many women have nowhere to go, too little money or job income to support themselves and their children. A woman may be reluctant to press charges against her husband because she fears an even more severe beating when he is released on bail. Many believe their husband when he promises "never again."

Priests, rabbis and magazine writers who counsel saving the marriage often encourage women to stay in a violent situation, Kennedy said.

Victims often have low self-esteem, the conference-goers reported. And the instances of their beating often fit into a family-wide pattern of violence: the husband hits the wife, who hits the children. The husband also may beat the children.

Cultural traditions may play a role. In some Hispanic and native American families, for example, the husband's strong role can cause women to endure abuse without complaint, counselors said.

Among blacks, racism and economic troubles can contribute to tension that can erupt into violence, said Marlene A. Cummings, ad adviser to the governor os Wisconsin.