THE U.S. COURT of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has delivered a major -- but far from fatal -- blow to the comparable worth cause. The appeals court, in a unanimous three-judge opinion, has reversed a ruling by a federal court in the state of Washington that had been, until this week, the most dramatic victory won by the movement. The trial judge had found that female employees of the state had suffered illegal pay discrimination because their earnings were less than those of men in jobs that are different but of comparable worth. He ordered correction of the wage structure throughout the state and four years' back pay for workers in predominantly female job categories. The judgment would have cost the state between $800 million and $1 billion.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which brought the suit, will now take the case to the Supreme Court. But even if the union is unsuccessful in court, comparable worth reassessments are being demanded -- and won -- in other forums. The most obvious is the bargaining table. Workers who hold jobs in traditionally female fields are no longer willing to accept less than workers with comparable education, skills, responsibilities and working conditions in male-dominated jobs, and they are bargaining for pay equity. Public employees are making their case in legislatures and county councils. And questions have been raised, in the media and the public at large, about the justice of paying male bakers and upholsterers, for example, more than female cooks and seamstresses.

These efforts outside the courtroom have been successful. In Los Angeles, clerical workers and librarians won a $12 million pay adjustment; Minnesota workers in predominantly female jobs gained $40 million. Similar agreements have been reached in Iowa ($20 million), Wisconsin ($9.1 million), Connecticut ($5.6 million) and New York ($36 million). And even in Washington state, where the union's court victory was reversed, the legislature has agreed to restructure pay over the next 10 years and has already appropriated $42 million to do so.

Courtrooms are not particularly efficient places to evaluate and set pay scales for tens of thousands of jobs. Fortunately, they are not the only places where this reassessment can be done. Negotiation, lobbying and public education on the complicated and controversial issue of pay equity will continue. Whatever the ultimate disposition of the Washington case, the debate will go on.