The flight of the first American woman astronaut has been met with a profound silence in the Soviet Union. But a few days before Sally Ride was blasted into orbit aboard the space shuttle Challenger, the Russians publicized the 20th anniversary of Valentina Tereshkova's historic flight into space, as if to say: "We were the first to do it, and we did it two decades ago."

Tereshkova was only 26 when she became the first woman in space during her flight June 16-19, 1963.

Svetlana Savitskaya became the second woman in history to soar into orbit in a spacecraft when she and four men spent a week aboard the Salyut 7 space station last August.

The two Soviet women cosmonauts are frequently held up as proof that women have equal status with men in Soviet society. Both Tereshkova and Savitskaya repeatedly have said so in their public statements, but the Soviet media tend also to portray them as being fond of sewing, pleased to be presented with an apron for a gift and combining their "presence of mind and courage" with "charm and femininity."

Since her 1963 flight, Tereshkova has moved up to important political jobs. The Kremlin first used her as a good-will ambassador. Subsequently she was elected to the policy-making Central Commmittee and made a member of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet.

With such positions, her activities during the past decade could be compared to those performed by close relatives of the British monarch.

While Tereshkova comes from a modest peasant background, Savitskaya, 26, is daughter of Air Marshal Yevgeny Savitsky, twice named Hero of the Soviet Union for his performance in World War II. Her brother is a Soviet Air Force pilot and so is her husband.

It was said that Tereshkova was selected for the first flight because of her good looks and despite the fact that she had minimal flying experience. By contrast, Savitskaya's story reads like an account of "how to be a cosmonaut."

In a recent interview, she recounted how she wanted to be a pilot since her youth, and--with her father's help--she began to fly and jump with a parachute as a teen-ager. At 17, she captured three world records, doing 500 jumps. She enrolled at the Moscow Institute of Aviation Technology and became a test pilot. She is proud that 11 of the 18 speed records she set still stand.

Tereshkova, in her recent pronouncements, including last week's interview with the news agency Tass, tends to talk about the issues of war and peace. She was divorced from her cosmonaut husband, Andrian Nikolayev, last year, and her private life can no longer be regarded as exemplary by Soviet standards. The couple has a daughter, 19.

Savitskaya, while also given to pronouncements following the official line about the danger of nuclear holocaust, seems far more independent and articulate. She seems to have taken her newly acquired fame in stride having already tasted fame at age 22, when she became world aerobatics champion. She radiates competence and confidence, yet seeks to portray herself as a typical Soviet woman.

She and her husband, Viktor, have no children.