President Carter will ask Congress for authority to require women to register for the draft, a former chief of naval operations told a Virginia legislative committee today.

Retired Navy admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, a former candidate for the U.S. Senate from Virginia, told members of a committee considering the Equal Rights Amendment that the president had told him of his plans at a White House meeting last week.

Carter is considered virtually certain to recommend inclusion of women in the registration system despite the assessment of White House aides that such legislation would be rejected by Congress.

In Washington, presidential press secretary Jody Powell said the president has told no one of his decision on the women's issue. He said the admiral was one of a group that met with Carter to discuss several aspects of the draft question. "The president did not state at that time what he intends to do," Powell said.

The president, returning from Camp David, told reporters Sunday that he had made up his mind on the question of including women in draft registration. But he would not discuss his decision and Powell said today that if Carter has reached a decision "he hasn't told me."

Zumwalt, a Northern Virginian who ran as a Democrat against Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. in 1976, told members of the Senate's Privileges and Elections Committee here that his understanding of the president's decision was clear. "President Carter told me, and I expect him to announce today, that he plans to seek authority from Congress to include women in the proposed military registration," the admiral said as opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment murmured in alarm.

Powell said the president is scheduled to make his announcement Saturday on whether he will include women in his registration plan.

The Zumwalt statement provided the theme for an emotional meeting at which opponents and proponents of the ERA clashed over the role of women in military service. In the end the ERA proponents carried the day, with the committee voting by a suprising 9-to-6 margin to report the amendment to the floor of the state Senate.

It was the first time in eight years that ERA proponents had been able to get the issue passed by a committee of the conservative Virginia state legislature. ERA proponents were optimistic tonight that the issue might pass the 40-member Senate by a one-vote margin, but were less hopeful of its chances in the 100-member House of Delegates.

"This is our first vote victory," exulted Marianne Fowler of Alexandria, state coordinator of Virginians for the ERA. "It's the closest we've come" to getting it through the assembly.

The amendment has been debated on the Senate floor only once before, in 1977, where it failed by one vote to get the constitutionally required 21 votes needed for approval. The measure then got to the Senate after legislators decided to "discharge" the amendment from a largely hostile committee so that all the senators could vote on it.

The amendment, which would outlaw discrimination on the basis of sex, needs to be passed by three more state legislatures before it can become a part of the Constitution. It has been passed by 35 legislatures and needs approval by 38.

Although ERA supporters here are claiming they have the necessary 21 votes this time, the apparent defection of one previous ally in the Senate may result in a 20-20 split when the measure is voted on, probably next Tuesday.

"I'll probably vote against it," said State Sen. Virgil H. Goode Jr. (D-Franklin County), who once co-sponsored the bill and boted for it in 1977. The focal point of an intensive lobbying campaign by both ERA foes and proponents, Goode said he has been receiving "a ton of calls" against ratification from his largely rural district -- in Southern Virginia.

"I don't want women in the draft or on the front lines," Goode argued today. "It will probably hurt the military."

At the hearing, Zumwalt, noting that the Chinese and Soviets have both drafted women and occasionally used them in combat, told legislators the United States "can't afford to ignore or denigrate the contributions women make to the military."

Though Zumwalt praised the performance of women in the military and said they should be registered and drafted like men, one senator grumbled "I just hope it don't come to that."

That was also the view of Brig. Gen. Elizabeth P. Hoisington, who retired after 29 years in the Army, including several spent as director of the old Women's Army Corps. With the ERA, she argued, "if you send 100 men to combat, you must send 100 women to combat. Can you imagine a fighting line where every other link in the chain is a weak one?"

As her comment brought gasps from ERA proponents in the room, Holsington continued, saying that "a half-and-half" Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps would make the United States "the laughing stock around the world."

State Sen. L. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond), an ERA supporter and the Senate's only black member, quizzed Hoisington why so many blacks served on the front lines in Vietnam.

"I wasn't responsible for that," she replied.

"And you weren't ever concerned either, were you?" he said.

ERA proponents testifying today were led by Sen. Clive L. DuVal II (D-Fairfax) and included Del. Dorothy S. McDiarmid (D-Fairfax), Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb and his wife, Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, who also chairs the President's Advisory Commission on Women.

"This is the last great piece of human rights legislation left undone by our country," said Robb, the daughter of the former president.

Arguing that she did not want her three daughters to have "fewer choices" than men, Robb said that the amendments would help both sexes.

Opponents were led by State Sen. Eva F. Scott (R-Amelia), the Senate's first and only woman member, and included the cochairman of a Mormon group working against the amendment and fundamentalist minister, Jerry Falwell of Lynchburg.

All Northern Virginians on the Senate committee voted in favor of the amendment. They are Daval, Adelard L. Brault and Joseph Gartlan, all Fairfax Democrats, and Wiley Mitchell (R-Alexandria).