The presence of a body of well-instructed men, who have not to labor for their daily bread, is important to a degree which cannot be overestimated; as all high intellectual work is carried on by them, and on such work material progress of all kinds mainly depends, not to mention other and higher advantages.

So said Charles Darwin of Victorian society. But change "men" to "women" and Darwin's obsevation of 150 years ago becomes a startling prophesy for our own time.

Educated women view their place in modern society as laborers alongside men. Because high salaries and earned positions of rank command attention and respect, women see an equal place in the work force as the only way to make a significant contribution to human advancement. Staying home and accepting financial support implies a humdrum life restricted aspirations, a resignation to drudgery, sevitude and ultimate insignificance.

But the Victorian male elite who stayed home, supported by family wealth, seem to us quite differnt. Rather than an oppressed and powerless lot, they strike us as unjustly over-privileged. It seems undemocratic, today, that a small segment of society should have the opportunity to be so influential without having to run the rat race with the rest of humanity.

Why is it that women see themselves restricted by the same circumstance Darwin considered "important to a degree which cannot be overestimated"? Is it our tendency to glorify men's activites while disparaging our own? If talented women could see staying home as a privilege, rather than a prison sentence, their influence on modern thought might suddenly rise to the level of importance of Darwin's elite.

Educated women who choose to stay home have a staggering opportunity to take on an intellectual responsibility to society. In the enviable position of being supported by partrons who put few restrictions on imagination and ask for remarkably little in return -- a hot meal, a clean shirt -- women today can comfortable devote a large part of their lives to creative effort.

What is lost in financial independence and symbols of rank is gained in intellectual freedom. Gone is the accountability to higher authority, those who determine the boundaries of dreams and the feasibility of imagination. Gone, too, are the tedium of structured life, the hours wasted in traffic snarls and airport lounges, the preening at academic cocktail parites, the petty policics of suspicious co-workers jockeying for advancement. Such circumstances have never been conducive to "high intellectual work." Sensible thinking is more likely to be done on sabbatical or after retirement than in laboring for daily bread. Nowwhere is it written that women must spend their free time watching game shows and polishing the piano. Civilization is on the verge of disaster. We need people with the time, the brains and the imagination to consider how to save it.

The ability to overcome poverty, overpopulation, ignorance and war is now well within our grasp; it is the good sense to use it that eludes us. Technology has so far outdistanced wisdom that it is possilbe to build a radio-tele- with a range of 15 billion light years -- the edge of the observable universe -- and to use the gargantuan monument to human ingenutiy to await, in the words of astronomer Carl Sagan, "stunning insights" from advanced civilizations to teach us how to prevent destruction by our own hands.

Of course, a message from outer space is not required to prevent, for example, an infant in an American city from freezing to death in an unheated apartment, or from growing up bowlegged from malnutrition or empty-eyed and dull from stress and confusion. Nevetheless, we continue to invent reasons why this must be so. Finding our way around such philosophical obstacles requires fresh new thoughts that are surely within the capacity of the human mind.

We have arrived at this impasse at just the moment in history when technology has freed women from excessive childbearing and time-consuming housework, when womem's energy and compassion are searching for direction. Ten years of clawing their way up the career ladder have convinced many women that there must be a new arena for feminine talent, one that leaves time to play music and grow strawberries and look into the faces of their children.

True, modern education does not prepare us to produce self-motivated works of high caliber. We have not been trained in original thought. It is much easiser to join a movement, wave a banner, ally oneself wtih group logic, whether brilliant or demented, than to strike out on one's own.

But the leaps of imagination that wil transport civilization to a higher ethical place require the ability to leave conventional schools of thought behind. They require a capacity to notice small things, a skill gone dormnat in our current fascination with speed, noise and manufactured excitement. Putting two and two toghether in a sophisticated age requires access to an overwhelming amount of information, most of which sits in libraries of major universities. But just when the stacks of unpubliched PhD theses, government documents, surveys, polls and statistics threaten to drown us, just when energy shortages make it immoral (or at least inconvenient) to drive long distances to look up a minor point, the telecommunications revolution is prepared to make research a simiple task. Soon it will be possible to plug a home computer, via the telephone outlet, into the most extensive research libaries in the world. We can also use it to do outr grocery shopping, but why limit the miraculous to the mundane?

Ideas that changed the world were not born in the halls of power and privilege. Galileo observed chandeliers, Freud listened to other people's troubles, Darwin took copious notes in his pigion shed, Buddha sat under a tree. Such wisdom does not develop on a coffee break, or on a week's vacation snatched from a hetic work schedule, but over a lifetime of experience, reflection and concern. Inspiration could be women's work, if we accept the challenge.