For the first time since their enfranchisement in 1920, women now vote both differently from and in greater numbers than men. In the words of Edward J. Rollins, the president's assistant for political affairs, "The political party that gets the women's vote will be the majority party, while the party of the men will be the minority."

And as Rollins knows, that minority party is emphatically the GOP. The new "woman's vote" is not only Democratic; it is motivated to be Democratic by a reactive anti-Republicanism.

It is not surprising, then, that Republicans everywhere are studying women. In the states and at the White House they are hunting down representative specimens and hauling them in for observation. Notepads poised and tape recorders running, the new political zoologists hover over their "focus groups"--What are they like? What are they saying? What do they want?

This struggle to figure out the feminine animal is humiliating for the Republicans--a fact they ought to consider. Nevertheless, their adoption of such an approach does indicate that they understand their problem accurately. The party is absolutely correct in assuming that the source of its trouble is in what women are like. For in fact, women have stopped voting Republican because they have started--for the first time ever--to vote in expression of their essential womanly character. And that "womanliness" lends itself to the platform of the left as neatly as "manliness" has always dovetailed with that of the right. As women begin to vote their gender, the Republicans are indeed becoming "the party of the men."

In its early days feminism took umbrage at reference to woman's "inherent nature," but the times have changed. Just as the civil rights movement began by asserting that the races were alike and that integration was the ideal, and then moved to celebration of the black identity and to separatism, so has feminism moved from the declaration that women are not different from men to the conviction that they are, in fact, very different, and in possession of superior qualities worth preserving and even spreading.

Yesterday's feminist proclaimed her ability to meet her brother as his equal on his own turf. He was aggressive? So was she. He was ambitious? She'd beat him to the top. He was logical, exacting, and rule-bound in his relations with his fellows? She demanded not a whit less rigor of others or of herself. But today, 15 years into her liberation project, she has for the very first time broken free of his standard and come fully into her own. Uncoerced, woman has rediscovered the Feminine--the charitable, conciliatory, ministrative Feminine--and she has pronounced it not just equal to the Masculine, but morally superior. In 1980, she declared her intention to take it with her into her new home in the public world and to promote it there--and thus was born the gender gap.

The data clearly indicate that the gender gap comes from women thus motivated. The gap is widest by far among single women aged 25 to 40, and it is this enormous bloc that is the very stuff of the new feminism. As these women participate in both the professional and sexual marketplaces, it is their concerns that the movement addresses.

They are the readers of women's fashion and career magazines, which religiously record every whisper of a development in feminist doctrine. And they are the women most likely to know that although last year's feminist might have longed to become a high-tension lineman or a combat flier, unencumbered by mere gender, this year's is proud to be feminine and thrills to the internal logic of her T-shirt's legend: "Another Woman for Peace.

Thus do friend and foe alike proclaim the new influence of womanliness over that traditional arena of "manly" virtue: politics. Betty Bumpers, founder of the organization Peace Links, heralds the "wonderful opportunity" for a feminine contribution to international relations. "We all know," she says, "that fighting is obsolete. . . . But I think it's easier for women to comprehend this and to assimilate it into options. Historically, women have always had an alternative to fighting. We have never depended on strength and power to defend our families."

Judy Mann of The Washington Post asserts that "women are bringing different priorities to politics than men are," and cites "issues of fairness, caring." Judith Nies, writing in The New York Times, affirms the idea that the gender gap was born of President Carter's "emphasis on moral issues," and nourished by "Ronald Reagan's macho style and cowboy politics." Pollster Louis Harris dismisses the Grand Canyon separating male and female fear of nuclear war (a split estimated to run as wide as 20 points), with the explanation that "women have always been more sensitive than men about human life."

None of this--the elevation of womanly virtue, the recognition of its compatibility with progressive concerns, or even its employment of the vote--is at all new. In fact, a rereading of the debate on women's suffrage reveals that the "moralization," "cleansing," or "purification of politics by the women's vote was among the principal arguments advanced on behalf of the 19th Amendment. The gender gap was not only anticipated; to some activists it was the whole idea.

Although many suffragettes confined themselves to protesting the very real injustice of their nonvoting status, others waxed romantic over the moral superiority of the feminine. Men had had poliics since time immemorial, these agitators argued, and look what a mess they had made--war, corruption, exploitation--but it was hardly surprising, considering what men were. If women were in charge, things would be altogether different. Political life, these suffragettes maintained, was as it was because its executors had the wrong attitude, not because of problems endemic to the enterprise itself.

The language that expressed this conviction was almost apocalyptic. Mrs. J. B. Hooker, addressing the Association for the Advancement of Women, wrote:

"Women are more spiritually perceptive than men because of their more sympathetic nature . . . so surely as man's public achievements in the past have been achievements of the war-power within him . . . so surely will the achievements of woman be the result of her brooding, protective, yet spiritually agressive nature. And there will arise . . . a grand concord. . .

In fact, the similarities between the feminists of yore and the feminists of today are so pervasive as to disprove Grover Cleveland's bon mot, once widely admired, concerning the likely effects of women's suffrage: "Women will change politics less than politics will change women." That is exactly the opposite of what happened. Politics has not changed women. Considering all they've been through, women are astonishingly like what they were 65 years ago--except that now they vote, and that might change politics very much indeed.

Two broad options face the party today: it can appease those seeking to feminize politics, or it can present an affirmative defense of the other way for which it always has stood. It can "me-too" the Democrats into a mutual mediocrity, or it can explicate that about politics which --as long years of experience have taught it--is not susceptible to feminization.

The Republicans will do well to realize that the first option is both bad strategy and bad principle. The GOP is unlikely to beat the Democrats at their own game, and it is not even desirable that it try. The idea of voter choice will have reached a sorry pass in this country when all parties start trying to be all things to all constituencies.

The nation needs, rather, to hear the second point of view. And if the Republicans articulate it, they will find many women listening as closely as men. For there still are women in America who would rather decide by their dispassionate intelligence than by their gender-- who want to consider the politics they are shaping as thoroughly and objectively as they try to consider their own nature as shapers. There still are women prepared to believe that democratic political groupings are not sufficiently plastic to assume the image-writ-large of those idealistic members who comprise them. There still are women who want to vote when they step into a polling booth, and not just to stamp, therein, their heartfelt desires upon the body politic.

But these women have opened their ears to blank silence. Femininity is today so self-conscious and articulate that any women who can read knows what it is and understands its virtue. Masculine virtue, by contrast, has no living advocate--indeed, it has not even an exponent. It is not surprising that there is a gender gap.

We need spokesmen and statesmen. Let us see if the Republican Party will rise to the occasion.