Spare me the Saturday night snide jokes about this. I am no fan of Anita Bryant's politics, but I don't want to poke through the ashes of her marital eruption for the laughs.

Yes, another self-appointed smug savior of the American family has become a shaken survivor. The story seems familiar, but not really very funny.

A few years ago, Bryant was questioned about her wifely role in a Playboy interview, "If Bob [Green, her husband] asked you to do something right now that was against the grain of your thoughts," she was asked, "would you simply submit to him?"

She answered then, "I might rebel against it -- and I have many times -- but biblically, I would submit, yes."

But last week, she said no. She would instead divorce her husband after 20 years and four children, because he "violated my most precious asset -- my very conscience." Her husband and others, she said, "conspired to control me and use my name and reputation to build their personal careers instead of my ministry."

This woman, who once described submission as a choice she had freely made, faced another choice: between her conscience and her marriage, between her beliefs and her husband. It happens in real life all the time.

Still, the Anita Bryant saga is not just another tale of disillusionment and divorce. She is part of a long tradition of women who enter the public sphere only to "defend" the private one: conservative women who become part of change.

The 19th century defined women as the Keepers of Moral Values. As duly appointed moral superiors to men in the home, they often became mother superiors to the country. These Domestic Women of the World founded not only the Social Purity movement against prostitution but also the mass movement against saloons, called Temperance.

By the thousands, they worked without guilt and crusaded without criticism because they were, after all, protecting the family.

In the 20th century, too, traditional women have founded very popular and public "moral" crusades. Anita Bryant's controversial second career began to "save the children" from her bizarre nightmare vision of homosexual recruiters. Phyllis Schlafly, for her part, has made a full-time profession out of defending homemaking. Again and again, "mothers" have founded and filled the anti-abortion, anti-highway, anti-nuclear energy, anti-chemical and anti-war movements.

For many, it has been a logical extension of first concerns. But for others it also has become an attempt to have it both ways, to justify working outside the home by defending the home. After all, in traditional times and marriages, the woman crusading "for her family" is more acceptable than the woman crusading "for her own rights."

A century ago, for example, the press condoned the illegal acts of the Temperance women because "these women were not agitating for suffrage." And only last week, a husband of a Love Canal leader supported his wife's activism, saying, "The hell with all that equal rights stuff -- they're fighting for their families." But as women go into the world, join causes and become leaders, they change. In his new book, "At Odds," historian Carl Degler says that the 19th century movement women "saw things and learned things that moved them in new, often quite unexpected and even unsettling directions. . . ."

The women who wanted to save the 19th century family from prostitution inevitably started lobbying for women's employment, if only to save them from "sin." The women who wanted to kill the Demon Rum realized that to do so they would need the vote.

Their 20th century descendants have irresistibly drifted in the same directions. Even conservative women battle now against second-class status in their political parties. The neighborhood women who fight highways or school policies begin to run for statewide office. At Love Canal, the "mothers" fight to be taken seriously, to be aggressive and knowledgeable and powerful -- in order to be heard.

Rarely do any of them "go home" again. Rarely are their homes untouched.

Anita Bryant, too, a public defender of the family and the traditional female role, was pushed or grew out of submission. Hardly a feminist then or now, she has still followed a familiar course: she has chosen her individual conscience over her role.

The lady tried to be a leader in the world and an obedient follower in the marriage. But these are the two ways you can't have it anymore.