If Geraldine A. Ferraro is inclined to regard the 1984 election as an uninstructive disaster, she is entitled.

The first woman on a major party's ticket campaigned in an exemplary manner. She did not mess up; she did not break down.

She did not blame others for her troubles, as Ronald Reagan did. She did not use vulgar language, in the manner of George Bush. She did not take things back, as sometimes was the case with her running mate, Walter F. Mondale.

Her Aug. 22 news conference, when she explained her finances for over an hour with awesome control and good humor, was the class act of the campaign. Her improvisations on the stump -- her facedown of Texas hecklers in September, her October showdown with Reagan-bound automobile workers in Illinois -- put her rivals to shame.

She didn't cry; she didn't whine. Her one weep was private. It was over a story that her immigrant parents had been arrested 40 years ago for running numbers.

She seemed to offer the reassurance that traditionalists might require to advance one of their own closer to the nuclear button. Ferraro is a doting daughter, a loving wife and the mother of three beautifully brought up children. To see her 20-year-old son, John Zaccaro Jr., looking out for his stooped grandmother on the stage on election night suggested that Ferraro had doled out family values along with the peanut butter sandwiches.

She was beset by bishops, who railed at her for views on abortion that they are able to tolerate from male Roman Catholic politicians. She was hounded by the news media. Some newspapers, fearful of being thought soft on a woman, printed yards of innuendo aimed at fanning the stereotypical suspicion that any Italian-American politician has to have Mafia ties. The Wall Street Journal cited her late father-in-law's signature on an alleged gangster's gun-permit application to reflect on her fitness to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.

Through it all, Ferraro, running her words together, unable to achieve pear-shaped tones, pressed themes she had reason to believe would be of vital concern to women and men alike: arms control and Central America. She drew mammoth crowds.

She debated Bush, and if she didn't stun the country with her command of the details of foreign policy or her intellectual insights, she managed to hold her own. And she told him off, for all women, for patronizing her.

She didn't wince; she didn't flag.

As her young campaign manager, John Sasso, said as the early returns were falling around him, "She put to rest any doubts about whether a woman could be strong enough and brave enough to run in a national campaign."

And Tuesday night it all came to nothing.

Sisterhood, which flowed like a mighty river in San Francisco in July, was a dry creek in November.

Fifty-nine percent of the women surveyed in an ABC News exit poll said her presence on the ticket made no difference to them.

It may be the paramount irony of 1984 that the first female candidate was judged not for herself but for her husband.

It was because of John Zaccaro and his real estate deals that Ferraro changed from the Wonder Woman expected to bring in enough Yuppies, women and minorities to drag Mondale to victory, into a potential drag on the ticket. On Aug. 12, she announced that her financial disclosure would not include her husband's income-tax returns.

Zaccaro relented. He gave out his forms. Ferraro held her news conference, and the cloud seemed to pass. But in October, it was reported that Zaccaro was a figure in a grand jury investigation of certain loans. The crowds kept up as did the cheers, but the ground was eroding under her feet.

In the Hilton Hotel ballroom, on election night, a feminist Ferraro volunteer said of a possible comeback run for the Senate: "I think she should if her husband is not indicted."

The election night celebration was a metaphor of lost euphoria. The grand ballroom of the Hilton Hotel was hardly full of Democrats anesthetized by defeat. There were few hugs, no tears. More emotion was shown at Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh's doleful election night gathering after the Massachusetts primary in 1976.

Ferraro was game to the end. She wore a bright red silk dress and a defiant smile. She bounded up the steps to the lectern and swayed to the strains of "New York, New York." It was a parody of the genuine joy of San Francisco.

She spoke crisply of the historic significance of her candidacy.

"We opened a door that will never be closed again," she said.

"I'm not so sure," sighed a New York liberal who had once thought that Ferraro's nomination was a passport to the Promised Land.

For Geraldine Ferraro, nothing is sure now, except that if they gave medals for campaign deportment, she'd get the gold.