The leader of the largest state chapter of the National Organization for Women sits in a jail cell reserved for the most dangerous female prisoners here. She is accused by her ex-husband, under the cloak of immunity, of murdering a man in Louisiana 17 years ago.

Her indictment has aroused the women's movement on this coast. Some, apparently including Foat, who says she is innocent, see her arrest as part of a plot against feminists everywhere. Some suspect that backbiting among women in the movement caused the trouble.

But many who have known Foat for a long time view her sudden predicament as a personal tragedy brought on by a rebellion against what seemed to be the limited choices life offered.

Her fiance in her high school days says he thinks that if she had found something challenging, the law or maybe medicine, it would have absorbed her abundant energies. But it was the 1950s. Women were encouraged to be stewardesses or waitresses or car agency clerks, jobs Virginia Eleanor Galluzzo mastered and tired of quickly.

So the woman now known as Ginny Foat, the woman who goofed off all year in high school chemistry class and then passed the state regent's exam with ease after only two days study, embarked at 24 on a youthful journey, riding across the country in a white convertible with an ex-Marine who seemed to have the kind of independence and ambition she wanted for herself.

Born in Brooklyn in 1941, Foat moved with her family to New Paltz, a Catskills college town in upstate New York, in 1954. Her mother was a housewife; her father drove a Wonder Bread truck. To Frederick Schindler, who dated her "five times a week for five years" and said he planned to marry her, she was an "extremely beautiful" young woman with a restless, urban outlook.

After high school, Foat studied briefly at City College of New York, then worked as a stewardess for Allegheny and American airlines and as a waitress in a New Paltz bar.

"Had she been challenged enough," Schindler said, "she could have had an exciting career, but she went to work in these female-type jobs and very quickly got bored."

She broke off her engagement with Schindler in 1960. "I was getting cold feet and started to hang around a little more with my buddies," he said.

She soon married Danny Angelillo, now a Long Island high school football coach. She worked while Angelillo attended college. After two years the marriage deteriorated, the couple arranged an annulment and Foat met a short, long-haired New Paltz bartender who looked like singer Sonny Bono. His name was John Joseph (Jack) Sidote.

Sidote was married and had a child, but was willing to be Foat's traveling companion on a trip across the country.

The two headed south, and by Thanksgiving, 1965, were working at the Ponderosa Swing Club, a New Orleans go-go establishment near the French Quarter where waitresses like Foat wore white vinyl boots, miniskirts and toy pistols on their hips.

Harry Lee, the sheriff for Jefferson Parish (county), just outside New Orleans, said in an interview that Sidote later told authorities that they could barely survive on what they were making, $10 a day each, "and decided they would try rolling somebody."

Lee said Sidote told authorities that Foat lured an Argentine industrialist, Moises Chayo, 62, who was in town to visit his hospitalized son, into Sidote's convertible and drove him to an isolated spot near a drainage canal in Metairie, five miles from New Orleans.

Sidote, who had hidden in the trunk, emerged and tried to rob Chayo, but the victim put up such a struggle that Foat had to hit him on the head with a tire iron, according to Sidote's statement to police.

According to Lee, they left the body, whose murder remained unsolved for 12 years, and individually made their way to Dallas, where they reunited and headed for Nevada.

Before dawn Dec. 20, again short of money, Sidote and Foat allegedly posed as brother and sister and picked up San Francisco hotel employe Donald Fitting from a casino on the south shore of Lake Tahoe, according to Judge Steven McMorris of the Tahoe Township Justice Court, recounting charges made against Foat and later dismissed.

Fitting was later found dead alongside a road with three bullet holes in his head.

On Jan. 2, 1967, Foat married Sidote. His divorce had become final, and they bought the No Regrets bar near the community of Carson, Calif.

In August, however, Sidote shot Okeni Moe, 18, after a dispute with him and other young men outside the bar. Sidote was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sent to Chino state prison, ending his married life with Foat.

She later wrote to prison authorities seeking his parole, but after his release in August, 1970, he filed for divorce. The decree was never made final, and when her third husband, restaurant entrepreneur Raymond George Foat, discovered this after their separation in 1976, he succeeded in having their marriage annulled.

When Sidote went to prison, his wife was unable to keep their bar, so she worked as a telephone operator and a waitress aboard the floating Princess Louise restaurant in San Pedro.

Her future husband, Raymond Foat, a Briton who is a naturalized U.S. citizen, was the restaurant's manager. She wanted to leave the city, according to friends, and he invited her to Vancouver, Canada, where he was setting up another restaurant.

Raymond Foat now works as food and beverage director at Waimea Falls Park on the north shore of Oahu in Hawaii. He recalled that his ex-wife was an extremely competent employe in San Pedro who assumed even more responsibility working with him in Canada. They were married May 17, 1971, he said, and in 1972 moved to Anaheim, Calif., where they continued in hotel and catering work.

Her difficulty as a woman in obtaining credit and loans for businesses she wanted to start helped push her toward her future life as an active feminist, he said.

She worked in a San Clemente hotel in 1973, meeting many important figures in the Nixon administration, and in 1974 attended her first NOW meeting. The couple moved to Canoga Park, in the San Fernando Valley, where she ran a catering business, a racketball club snack bar and became active in the local NOW chapter.

"I became accustomed to coming home from work and finding a houseful of ladies" holding a NOW meeting, Raymond Foat said.

In the end, it became too much. "I realize it was selfish of me," he said, "but I felt she was devoting all her time to these activities and did not have enough time for us."

He is convinced that she is innocent of the murder charges--he helped support her 1977 fight to be cleared on charges relating to the Fitting death in Nevada--and rejects suggestions that his ex-wife hates and fears men.

"That's ridiculous," he said. "We had a great relationship as a married team. We had a great marriage as far as sexuality goes."

As her marriage to Foat broke up, Sidote re-entered her life. He had been arrested in upstate New York for beating up the wife of a bar owner with whom he had quarreled.

According to New York state police Sgt. John Salters, Sidote appeared to be a hopeless alcoholic and was suffering severe withdrawal pains when jailed in Kingston. "He started to fall apart on me. I had never seen a guy like that before," Salters said.

He said he provided Sidote with a half-pint of vodka, and that in turn Sidote told his story of the 1965 murders in Louisiana and Nevada. He repeated the stories when he sobered up, according to Salters, and soon found himself back in Douglas County, Nev., pleading guilty to manslaughter and robbery in the killing of Fitting.

Foat was arrested for her alleged part in the slaying and was brought to Nevada. Tahoe Judge McMorris, then the district attorney, said he had thought Sidote might testify against her, "but when he first saw her face to face, I saw some reluctance."

Sidote also was said to be displeased with the 25-year sentence he received for his guilty plea, and refused to cooperate further. McMorris said he might not have been able to get a conviction even with Sidote's help. Under Nevada law, testimony from an accomplice in a crime, without other supporting evidence, is barred.

A judge dismissed charges, freed Foat, and Nevada prosecutors say the law effectively prevents them from ever moving against her.

In Louisiana, however, the same restrictions on Sidote's testimony do not apply. "It makes a big difference," McMorris said.

Meanwhile, Foat's career blossomed. She became a delegate for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and floor whip at the 1980 Democratic National Convention, a paid organizer for the labor boycott of J.P. Stevens textile mills and finally, in 1981, was elected full-time salaried state coordinator--the equivalent of president--of the 44,000-member chapter of California's NOW.

At the 1982 NOW convention in Indianapolis, supporters wearing gold-and-blue "Go Foat" T-shirts just missed electing her national vice president.

It all fell apart with a letter last month to Jefferson Parish, La., police from Shelly Mandell, a feminist, who as an assistant to Los Angeles council member Marvin Braude said she wanted to nominate Foat to the city human rights commission.

Mandell has said she wanted to make a "discreet inquiry" to ensure that Foat's past legal problems (known to many of Foat's acquaintances) would not be a future embarrassment to Braude or Foat.

Mandell used Foat's maiden name, Virginia Galluzzo, "and that hit on our computer," Sheriff Lee said. Without telling him, Lee said, his officers followed routine procedures and notified Los Angeles police of the outstanding warrant.

Two detectives arrested Foat Jan. 11 while she was driving a friend to Burbank Airport.

Sidote, in jail in Carson City, Nev., on a drunk-driving charge, was located and taken to Louisiana, where he testified before a grand jury in exchange for immunity in the murder case.

Foat issued a statement saying she was innocent. "The only killing in my life was the death of a passive woman named Ginny Foat before the birth of a strong feminist."