With a female mayor and a female majority on its board of supervisors, this politically avant-garde city would seem the last place to find an argument over a feminist notion as popular as comparable worth.

True, a federal appeals court based here handed down a decision last month deriding the idea of raising salaries in female-dominated jobs. It was bad law and bad economics, the judges said. But they were male federal appointees considered to be cut off from the passion for minority rights that fuels local politics here.

Every important element of the city's political establishment has sworn allegiance to comparable worth, yet nothing has been done to narrow the male-female salary gap.

By contrast, the city's old rival, Los Angeles, with a male-dominated government, approved a negotiated comparable-worth settlement months ago.

San Francisco's dilemma reveals how even the best intentions can go awry when a legally complex idea does not easily mesh with the way many cities are run or with the financial crunch that many local jurisdictions are encountering.

Comparable worth is a step beyond the federally mandated principle of equal pay for equal work. Its advocates argue that some kinds of work, such as truck driving or typing, may be different but require the same amount of training and responsibility, and thus should be worth the same pay. This usually means raising the salaries of typists or others in jobs traditionally held by women, on the grounds that they would be making as much as truck drivers if it were not for sex discrimination.

The national prominence that has come to San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, one of those considered last year for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination, grows in no small measure from her skill at forging a reputation for both feminism and fiscal conservatism.

Her determination to fend off a mounting deficit at all costs, along with poor legal advice given comparable-worth advocates on the board, has created an odd stalemate and put on the ballot an anticomparable-worth measure that almost no one, in hindsight, really wants.

In February, Feinstein signed a board resolution calling for comparable worth, but warned the board that this could not be done without a change in the city charter. The charter, vestige of another era of government reform that affected many jurisdictions, says that only the Civil Service Commission can raise city workers' salaries, and only in response to an increase in the prevailing wage for similar jobs in the private sector.

The board, however, has the right to pass legislation on working conditions. In the glow of good feeling over comparable worth earlier this year, the supervisors eagerly accepted legal advice that they could begin a comparable-worth plan through the back door by granting a new $5-a-day "meal allowance" to workers in predominately female and minority job categories.

They also proposed a $100-per-month "equity adjustment allowance" for the next year. Margaret Kisliuk, the mayor's budget analyst handling the issue, estimates this would affect 7,000 of the city's 26,000 employes and cost $27.7 million over two years.

Feinstein quickly vetoed the new ordinance. "Comparable worth does not mean simply giving more money to women and minorities," she said. "Implementation of comparable worth requires an evaluation of the content of jobs to determine whether they are comparable."

The board of six women and five men voted 9 to 2 to override the veto. Supervisors Quentin Kopp, an old adversary of the mayor, and Louise Renne, a strong ally, joined to provide her only support, saying they agreed that the meal allowance was illegal under the charter.

Despite the vote, Feinstein has refused to pay the meal allowance, and asked the voters to overturn the board's action in a special November ballot measure. Kisliuk said public reaction to the mayor's deficit-fighting stance has been positive, although 75 demonstrators from the Coalition for Pay Equity picketed her appearance at a benefit for the National Women's Political Caucus Friday night.

Supervisor Nancy Walker, a strong supporter of comparable worth, suggests that Feinstein acted out of pique because "the board of supervisors had the unmitigated gall to override a mayoral veto."

The real villains, Walker and other supervisors argue, are the federal officials who have put the city in a financial bind by cutting off revenue sharing, and perhaps the attorney who gave them the idea for the meal allowance. Employe union officials estimate that it will take $40 million to $60 million to institute a full comparable-worth salary adjustment. For the moment, the city has neither the money nor the new authorizing language in its charter.

Walker says she hopes the issue can be taken off the ballot before a vote that might produce national headlines saying San Franciscans had rejected comparable worth.

Not one elected official in town has said anything bad about comparable worth, she noted. "We are into a power struggle, but we need to come back together and see how we can negotiate this."