THOUGH HER "FIRSTS" as a woman in journalism were both legion and legend, Miriam Ottenberg of The Washington Star did not consider herself a crusader for women's rights. She just assumed those rights and turned her firsts into bests. "I'm not a feminist, I'm a reporter," said Miss Ottenberg, who died here Tuesday at the age of 68, and as all of us who ever worked with or competed against her knew fully well, she was always the reporter.

From the start of her 38-year career at The Star in 1937 through her battles against multiple sclerosis and then cancer, Miss Ottenberg cracked barriers as a matter of professional course. Could a young woman succeed in those days as a police reporter, long the rough-and-tumble domain of men? Move aside and watch out -- Miss Ottenberg would prove she could handle any flak from police, editors, lawyers or wrongdoers on her beat.

Becoming one of the best crime and investigative reporters in the country, Miss Ottenberg relied on fundamentals of journalism: pure hard work and a constant determination to get the story. She got them, too: the biggest crime story in years, about gangland informer Joseph Valachi and the "Cosa Nostra" syndicate; and countless other reports that led to stronger laws against consumer fraud and white-collar crimes. In 1960, her series of articles exposing unscrupulous used-car dealers earned Miss Ottenberg a Pulitzer Prize. There were all sorts of other awards for expos,es on baby brokers, marriage counselors, fake charities, crooked investment companies and home improvement rackets.

Her own illnesses got the same direct treatment: in 1978, she wrote a frank and fact-filled book on M.S. -- not a tear-jerker, but an examination of how to cope and keep going, which is what she did so well for so long. That is why, in the newsrooms and in the halls of government, when someone said "Miriam is on to something," we all knew it meant stand by for a blockbuster. That is why Miriam Ottenberg will be remembered with admiration and respect in the business she so clearly loved.