In the next weeks a great deal will be written about the Ferraro factor. Was it a political plus, a minus, a wash? What happened to the female surge, the male backlash, the vice presidential drawing card? Are women better off than they were four months ago?

For people who judge things by statistics, the results are bound to be mixed. There was an eight-point gender gap. But women didn't stop the flow of blood out of the Democratic Party from becoming a geyser. Geraldine Ferraro didn't do the impossible: she didn't make Fritz Mondale president.

The analysis is more mixed. Surely, the financial investigations rubbed glitter off the star. But there were other mistakes. The Mondale camp played to the women's vote only at the very end. The strategy lid out July 4, when women leaders talked to the candidate about the political possibilities of a woman on the ticket, remained dormant. It was as if the Mondale people expected Ferraro to win women's votes on mysticism.

From the beginning the Republicans went after the women's vote with ads and a campaign that stressed economic gains, not equal rights. In contrast, Ferraro made her final full-tilt emotional pitch for the women's vote just four days before the election.

But not all victories come down to numbers. Ferraro did win that second race -- the race for women. She won it among those who rooted for her even if they didn't vote for her. She won it among the skeptical and the sexist who came to admire her. She won it among those who never thought they'd live to see a woman on the ticket.

In many ways this race was a qualifying test. Ferraro was given oral exams by reporters and pols and public. The first woman, the outsider, was tested for admission to the highest ranks of the profession. She also was put through tests of nerve, answering questions about family finances, debating toughness and leadership with George Bush. At times, it seemed that there were millions of graders poised, waiting for the first break of emotion -- a single tear, flash of anger, "hysteria" to flunk her. She passed, not just with the 16 percent of voters who said a woman on the ticket was a plus, but with the 55 percent who said gender made no difference.

I don't know how Ferraro will assess these four months in the long morning after. On election eve she said, "It hasn't always been easy, but it's been worth it for all of us."

I hope that's true for her. I am sure it's true for "all of us." Are we better off than we were four months ago? Ask the women who reached out to her at rallies. Ask Carrie Giardino, a fourth- grader who ran for school president in South Yarmouth, Mass., on a Ferraro ticket -- "If that Italian woman can do the job . . . so can this one!" -- and won.

In blistering defeat, this candidate told a room of supporters: "Campaigns, even if you lose them, do serve a purpose. . . . We made a difference." Geraldine Ferraro ran with grit and grace, humor and intelligence. She made history. "Not bad," as she would put it, "for a housewife from Queens, huh?"