The transition is almost over. Already Nancy is replacing Rosalynn on the list of most admired and best dressed. Already "The Iron Butterfly" has bumped "The Steel Magnolia" out of the limelight.

By Tuesday, Ronnie's Nancy will have succeeded Jimmy's Rosalynn and we'll have a bona fide new First Lady . . . and a brand new First Target.

Yes, it's true that in China they put a former first lady on trial. But in America we persecute the current one.

The wife of a candidate needs the ability to look adoringly at her husband. But, if history is any guide, the wife of a president needs something else: a pretty tough hide.

Reagan isn't the first First Husband to notice that his wife is being picked on. Ever since Dolley Madison was labeled "fat, forty but not fair," it's been open season on White House wives. They've been criticized for everything from their hair style to their life style.

Sarah Polk, who banned wine, cards and dancing, was called too stuffy. Margaret Taylor, who smoked a corncob pipe, was called too coarse. And the closest Julia Grant ever got to a compliment was being described this way: "Too plain to arouse envy, too devoted to her husband and family to incite gossip and not sharp enough of tongue to stir up controversy."

Most of the public women held up better than Rachael Jackson, who has said to have suffered a heart attack after overhearing gossip about her and never recovered. But they've nearly all suffered some public wounds.

Mary Lincoln was labeled dumpy. Mamie Eisenhower called tacky. And Jackie Kennedy pretentious.

After seeing Mrs. Lincoln at a reception, a senator said, "The weak-minded Mrs. Lincoln has her bosom on exhibition and a flower pot on her head."

After seeing Jackie Kennedy, a Manhattan woman wrote to a newspaper: "She looks too damn snappy. I just don't like women who look that snappy."

Even the redoubtable Lady Bird Johnson, business woman and "beautifier," was exasperated enough to say, "A politician should be born an orphan and remain a bachelor."

The president's wives in the 20th century have been trampled in the debate about the appropriate role of any wife. What is she supposed to be: First Companion or Co-President? Independent Woman or White Housekeeper?

Eleanor Roosevelt -- who, by the way, carried a pistol when travelling along -- was lambasted for being too public. Not only was she gallivanting about on one cause or another, sniffed her critics, but her house was a mess. One guest gasped that she "ruined her white gloves on dust at the White House."

Her successor, Bess Truman, was in turn criticized for being too private. She was too much the retiring housewife.

More recently, we have had Pat who was "plastic" and Betty who was "candid" -- to a fault? -- and Rosalynn who was "ambitious." Rosalynn in particular was faulted when she advised the president, faulted when she deferred to the president and faulted when she defended the president.

Now, the people who criticized the Carters' "co-presidency" are advising Reagan's wife to stay at home. There -- you can make book on it -- she will be roundly criticized for being a stay-at-home.

The problem is that the president's wife doesn't have a job; she has a role.

The First Lady has all the visibility and none of the power of her husband. She has all the access and none of the accountability.

She is not only saddled with all of the ambivalence and expectations about the American Everywife. She is also most admired and most criticized for her curious mix of obligations and advantages.

There is no job description and no way to fill it. Nobody elected her, but everybody's stuck with her. So everybody sticks it to her.

It's enough to elect them to the Most Sympathetic List. Soon even Nancy may be empathizing with the lady who held the post longest. When reporters asked Eleanor Roosevelt what she looked forward to most on leaving the White House, she said simply, "Freedom from public notice."