It was 61 years ago, at the very first meeting of an organization dubbed the League of Women Voters, when Carrie Chapman Catt, the president and founder, delivered a plea for peace to a group of brand-new voters.

No one was surprised to find peace so high on the agenda. The suffragists who founded the league in the flush of victory had an ideal, would make a difference-- bring a special set of values with them into politics. They could do no less than transform the world.

Well, it didn't happen that way. Yet on Monday, at the league's national convention, they turned to that issue again. A sentiment had grown up from the grass roots of this sturdy, even dogged, "good government" organization: it was time to tackle the questions of bombs and butter, national security and national insecurity.

In careful League-ish prose, the delegates approved a resolution to "evaluate U.S. national security policies and their impact on our domestic programs and our relationships with other nations."

But what is different this time isn't the sentiment. It's the new power behind this "peace" concern. We are, just now, beginning to see what those suffragists envisioned, a distinctive and real vote among women along the lines of their own values.

In the days before suffrage, women held the standards of caretaking, nurturing and peace. But they held them in "their place," at home. It took more than an amendment to change that. It took decades of growing self-confidence and access to the wider world. It took the women's movement to foster women's political independence.

We can clock the times and places when women's views began to firmly diverge from men's. From 1975 on, in polls, women have been less willing than men to sacrifice quality of life to economic growth. By 1980, 54 percent of women disapproved of building a neutron bomb while 54 percent of men approved of building one. By late 1981, women were more likely than men-- by nine points--to say that the proposed Reagan cuts in social programs were too high.

Today a pack of pollsters and analysts is trying to assess this thing, the women's vote. They agree on at least three possible reasons why women are more alienated than men from Reagan and the Republican Party: women's rights issues, cuts in social programs for the poor, fear of nuclear war.

Reagan pollster Richard Wirthlin described the "women's vote" to me as complicated, conflicted, still mysterious. But in one sense it is simple. All three of these concerns--equal rights, "fairness," peace -- can be fairly placed under the umbrella labeled "values."

As pollster Pat Caddell reads it: "We're seeing a different perception in values, concerns, priorities. Women aren't willing to make the same trade-offs for economic growth, and they have a very real skepticism about machismo in foreign policy."

For perhaps the first time, women are bringing their values into politics, and sticking with them. For the first time, men are the followers. Over the past year, in one poll after another, women have staked out a clear position--against Reaganomics, against nuclear arms--and gradually men have drifted over to share those beliefs. If Reagan has modulated his tone on nuclear disarmament, it is largely because of this constituency.

I am not as comfortable as the suffragists in claiming higher virtue or morality for women. I can't talk about "women's values" as if all women share them and all men ignore them. It's not true.

Yet there is a real difference, a statistically significant difference. For whatever reasons--because of our culture, because of our history or because of motherhood-- nonviolent convictions are more pervasive among women.

It was true that day in 1921 when Mrs. Catt spoke to the League. But 61 years later, women have finally gained enough assurance about themselves and skepticism about leaders to coalesce around this issue. Perhaps they needed distance. Perhaps they even needed the ultimate anxiety about the half-hour nuclear holocaust.

Now, in large meetings like this one across the country, and in small encounters, there is a real sense that women who have been working for their rights are also working for their values: values that put caretaking before missiles, love before glory, the urge to survive over the urge to fight.

They bring with them today the clout of their convictions.