Jeane Duane Jordan Kirkpatrick, 54, the first woman and first Democrat named to a Cabinet-rank position in Ronald Reagan's administration, is also the first person President-elect Reagan has tapped from a close-knit group of intellectuals known as neoconservatives.

The neoconservatives are mostly Democrats and mostly professors who broke with the liberalism of the late 1960s and have gone on in the 1970s to wage a war of ideas that has brought to American conservatism an intellectual respectability it lacked in the days of Barry Goldwater.

Like most other neoconservatives, Kirkpatrick comes from a Democratic family and considers herself still a Democrat by virtue of her continued support for the domestic welfare state. But she has been in almost constant disagreement with her party ever since it nominated George McGovern for president in 1972.

"'We' affirmed the validity of the American dream and the morality of the American society," she wrote last year by way of explaining the neoconservatives' disagreements with the McGovern wing of the party. "'They' adopted the characterizations of intellectuals . . . who described the U.S. as a sick society drunk on technology and materialism."

In the wake of McGovern's nomination, Kirkpatrick, a political science professor at Georgetown University and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, helped found the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, a group of conservative Democrats that for years yearned to see Sen. Henry Jackson (D-Wash) become president.

Like most other neoconservatives, she supported Jimmy Carter in 1976 but quickly lost whatever faith she had in him, becoming particularly dissatisfied with the Carter foreign policy. Last year she wrote a scathing article on the subject for Commentary magazine, called "Dictatorships and Double Standards," which brought her a fan letter from Reagan.

The article was particularly critical of Carter's abandonment of support for authoritarian regimes in Iran and Nicaragua. Kirkpatrick said the president "continues to behave . . . not like a man who abhors autocrats but like one who abhors only right-wing autocrats," and called his foreign policy "a posture of continuous self-abasement and apology."

Kirkpatrick ultimately played a fairly important part in Reagan's presidential campaign. In the spring she joined one of his advisory committees; in the summer she helped coach him for the campaign debates; and in the fall she joined his transition foreign policy task force.

Her rise to the ambassadorship to the United Nations is strikingly similar to that of the last prominent neoconservative to hold the job, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). Moynihan, too, is a lifelong Democrat; he, too, was appointed by a Republican president; he, too, got the job because of an article in Commentary that caught the president's eye. If the parallel continues to hold, Kirkpatrick will be more a preacher than a diplomat in the job, using it as a pulpit from which to rail against critics of the United States.

The daughter of an oil drilling contractor, Kirkpatrick was born in Duncan, Okla., and raised there and in Mount Vernon, Ill. She has undergraduate degrees from Stephens College and Barnard College, and got her M.A. and Ph.D. at Columbia University. In 1955 she married Evron Kirkpatrick, a fellow political scientist who is now executive director of the American Political Science Association. The Kirkpatricks have three sons. The elder two are students at Georgetown Law School and the youngest is a junior at Kenyon College, in Kenyon, Ohio.

"My experience demonstrates to my satisfaction that it is both possible and feasible for women in our times to successfully combine traditional and professional roles," she wrote in this year's edition of Who's Who in America.

Thus it was not until the mid-1960s -- when she was in her early 40s -- that she completed her doctorate and published the first of her six books. In 1972 and 1976 she held middle-level positions in the Democratic Party organization, but by that time she was already a dissident member of the party.

Asked in an interview last spring why she feels more comfortable with the Democratic than the Republican party, she said, "I'm very pro-labor. I'm very pro-union. Guns leave me pretty cold, too." In an article she wrote last year for a Republican magazine about why the neoconservatives have remained Democrats, she criticized the Republicans for insufficient compassion toward the problems the welfare state is designed to alleviate. "The problem," she wrote, "is that the Republican Party has not articulated any inclusive vision of the public good that reflects concern for the well-being of the whole community."

In January of this year, Kirkpatrick was a member of a group of leading neoconservatives who called on President Carter in the White House in an effort to establish a peace between themselves and the administration.

As she recalled it several months later, the neoconservatives' leader, political scientist Austin Ranney, congratulated Carter for changing his mind about the intentions of the Soviet Union in the wake of the invasion of Afghanistan, and Carter responded that he had not changed his mind but had always followed a consistent policy toward the Soviets. Soon after that meeting, the names of neoconservatives began turning up on lists of advisers to Ronald Reagan.

"They have treated us like pariahs," she said of the Carter administration last spring. "We had acted like good Democrats for a long time. Meanwhile the Republican Party keeps telling us they like what we say. They call me. They write to me. They say, 'What a marvelous article.' We are really treated quite badly by the Democratic Party and meanwhile we are bombarded with friendly messages from Republicans. They keep joining us. We don't join them.

"And after a certain time it begins to seem irresistible. Especially if the person seems to be very likely to be the next president of the United States."