When she got into her West Coast office there was a small headline, neatly cut out of the newspaper and left on her desk by an anonymous co-worker. It read, succinctly: "This was a bad year for women."

My friend knew instantly what to make of this message. It had arrived the morning after the election the night before. It had been directed at the most visible woman in the company. The intent was as clear as any pasted-word warning of a kidnapper.

When my friend told me this tale, I thought about how many women were braced for the worst that morning, braced for the media death knells to ring, proclaiming again the end of the women's movement, the demise of progress, the usual. Hadn't women's groups called this election a test of commitment to women's rights? Hadn't some predicted that a woman on the national ticket would make all the difference to voting women?

There is always a moment when the image is more important than the reality. The first analysis of what this election meant for women had been carefully placed on my friend's desk.

But in the next week, there was no concerted effort to read a reactionary impulse toward women in this Reagan vote. The presidential margin was too enormous, the evidence too mixed to scapegoat The Woman on the ticket. If the women's vote didn't save Mondale, it made a difference for others such as Paul Simon in Illinois, John Kerry in Massachusetts, Madeleine Kunin in Vermont.

Still, I found myself thinking about a word that had never slipped easily off my typewriter, even in the old days: sisterhood. What has happened to the sense of sisterhood?

In this election, nine out of 10 blacks voted together. By nearly two to one, Jews voted with the same understanding of what the Reagan supporters meant when they talked about this "Christian nation." But many women who disagreed with Reagan on equal rights did not give "their" issue the same overwhelming priority.

It is true that the Reagan people put their best women's rights foot forward, but it is also true that women were wooed successfuly on the basis of their other identities: as family members, workers, taxpayers. Not as women. Not as "sisters."

The question -- What has happened to that always tenuous bond called sisterhood? -- goes wider and deeper than any one election. There was a time, and not that long ago, when women began to focus on what they had in common, what they had suffered in common. There was a sense of community created out of this fresh awareness, out of anger too, and a belief in change. A certain population of women thought of themselves as women first and found some self-conscious assurance in the slogan that "sisterhood is powerful."

Today much of that energy has been dispelled in the best possible way: by success. The head of steam from women has been dissipated by new opportunities. A generation of young women has grown into adulthood without knowing bosses who only hire men or schools that track women into slower lanes.

There was a subliminal message behind the Republican pitch for women: "We offer promise, not promises." They claimed to represent the strong -- the already liberated -- women who did not need such crutches as an Equal Rights Amendment.

Many of the older women who went through the sisterhood years have run low on energy as well. Perhaps they have made their quota of changes. Perhaps they may have also made their compromises. Some inevitably shift gears to other commitments, causes, concerns.

I don't mean to imply complacency or victory. At one end of the spectrum, more women have become poor. At the other end, there are women bumping up against the top jobs, the new ceiling on their aspirations. But in the vast middle, I see women who, on balance, experience more satisfaction than frustration, more confidence than despair.

I suppose this is the edge of good news. There are fewer predictions of doom in the post-election analysis than my West Coast friend and I expected. The hostile messages toward advancing women are now the prerogative of men who leave ominous notes in the night. Whatever else is going on, the assumptions about the way women live have permanently changed. There may be less sisterhood around these days, but there's more equality.