"To understand my presidential campaign," the polite, cheerful candidate said last week to an interviewer from WPON Radio here, "you only have to understand one principle: To be born female in our society is to be born behind enemy lines."

That combative principle is the driving force behind the distinctive presidential campaign being waged by Sonia Johnson, the educator from Arlington, Va., who is this year's standard-bearer for the Citizens Party, the 5-year-old political movement that fielded ecologist Barry Commoner for president in 1980.

The marriage of Johnson's radical feminist philosophy with the Citizens' pro-environment, anti-nuclear, anti-big business program is not likely to lead to electoral success: Johnson predicts that she and vice-presidential candidate Richard Walton, an author from Rhode Island, will get fewer than the 236,000 votes Commoner received last time.

But the hard-working candidate has set an important procedural precedent for the nation's struggling third parties. This summer, after extended paper work and negotiations, she persuaded the Federal Election Commission that she was entitled to federal matching funds.

The sums aren't large: the government will provide less than $200,000 of her $500,000 campaign budget, compared with $40 million each for the major-party contenders. But Johnson became the first third-party presidential candidate to get public money during a campaign. (John B. Anderson, who got federal funds after the 1980 election, was an independent candidate with no party.)

"It's a nice symbol of the strength of the First Amendment," Johnson said. "Here I'm traveling all over being very critical of our government, and the Treasury is helping pay for it."

Johnson also tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Federal Communications Commission and the television networks that she and other minor-party candidates should be included in the presidential debates.

"That's one we'll have to work on next time," she said. "But we've started the process along. And those procedural things were half the reason we made the race in the first place."

Johnson says her candidacy is also intended to take advantage of the bully pulpit a national campaign provides to spread what she calls "a revolutionary, transformative world view."

Johnson says her world view stems from her belief that feminism is not just another political issue but a comprehensive philosophy of living and governing that could "bring real peace and justice to the planet".

"How can you talk about peace among the nations," she asks her audiences, which are predominantly female, "if you don't yet have peace in the kitchen or the bedroom?

"The answer is: You won't have peace on earth until you appreciate the central concept of radical feminism -- that oppression of women is the archetype oppression, the model for all other war and subjugation in the world. Man raped and overpowered woman, and when he had to prove his manhood again, he raped and overpowered Afghanistan, Grenada, all the other places."

Accordingly, Johnson said, an era when the world faces a possibility of nuclear doom is "a period when we have to adopt women's ways.

"All the ways that have been called 'womanly,' and therefore weak and dumb, are the nonviolent, cooperative ways we need now to prevent atomic destruction," she said.

This message is delivered in light, peppy tones by the candidate, whose rallies can resemble a classroom with a bouncy, zesty teacher in charge. In mid-speech she calls on her audience to join her in a song or to stand and stretch arms toward the sky. ("For some reason, it helps you think clearly," she said to a college group here.)

Johnson's transformation to radical activist began when she became a feminist in the late 1970s. By 1979, when she was excommunicated from the Mormon church after a highly publicized debate with church leaders over women's rights, she was a full-time advocate and evangelist for feminist ideas.

Her alliance with the Citizens Party came after Commoner, the party's first standard-bearer, split with the movement and endorsed Democrats (first Jesse L. Jackson, then Walter F. Mondale) for president.

The party offered its nomination to former attorney general Ramsey Clark. When he demurred, some Citizens leaders came to Johnson.

"At first I thought, well, I couldn't run for president," she said. "But then I realized that was a sexist way of thinking.

"And I thought to myself, well, look who's president now," she said to appreciative laughter from an audience of women near Detroit. "If Ronald Reagan can handle it, it's got to be a very simple job."

Like every candidate who shuns the two major parties, which control ballot access in every state, she has had to fight hard just to have her name listed. With a few court battles pending, she is on ballots in 18 states. She did not gain access in Maryland, Virginia or the District of Columbia.

Johnson does not hide the fact that the Citizens Party is a vehicle for her to spread her feminist ideology. She won't even promise to remain in the party after November.

But in a long day's campaigning in Michigan this month, she did endorse such Citizens' ideas as federal licensing of all corporations, mandatory representation of workers on corporate boards and laws limiting a company's right to close a plant.

Her peace-oriented approach to military issues fits with the Citizens Party's defense plank, which calls for a 50 percent cut in the defense budget, termination of the Central Intelligence Agency and elimination of nuclear missiles.

She does not, however, endorse the "mutual, verifiable nuclear freeze" that many liberals have backed. The proposal is too timid, she says.

"It's great to talk about that, but there will never be one because you can't get mutual agreement and you can't really verify it," she said.

Johnson and the Citizens Party are pushing for a unilateral freeze by the United States to lead the way toward disarmament.

"We can already destroy the Soviet Union 12 times over with our weapons now," she said. "That's a bit redundant. Why don't we just freeze now on our side? We could put those billions into something useful."

It is not a position calculated to win votes in a year when major-party candidates are debating how many new weapons should be built. But then, winning votes is not what this campaign is all about.

"That's the beauty of being a third party," Johnson said. "You're not going to win anyway, so you can just go out and tell the truth."