Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, responding to criticism from women's rights groups and an Air Force internal investigation, has barred military commanders from interfering with the career decisions of officers' spouses.

The order also prohibits discrimination against officers whose promotions have been jeopardized because their spouses hold jobs and are not considered active enough in military volunteer and social organizations.

The new policy attempts to reverse a problem that has long permeated military life but has only recently attracted public attention. Weinberger said the policy is necessary because of the increasing numbers of military spouses seeking full-time or part-time employment.

"It's a responsible action by Weinberger," said Pat Reuss, legislative director of the Women's Equity Action League, one of the groups that has lobbied the Pentagon and Congress for such protections. "This is a decades-old problem. I'm sorry it had to bubble up to a horrible boil before someone took action."

Weinberger's order of last Thursday stems from an investigation at Grissom Air Force Base, Ind., which found that the wives of two officers were pressured to leave their civilian jobs in exchange for promotions for their husbands.

One of the women resigned from her civil service job after her husband's superiors warned that he would not be selected for a promotion if she continued to work. In the second case, an officer asked for a reassignment after his superiors pressured his wife to give up her career.

Women's rights groups told a House subcommittee this month that the problem is rampant throughout the military. They testified that officers frequently are told that their career advancement will be hampered if their wives are not active in military volunteer and social organizations.

Carolyn Becraft, then director of the Women's Equity Action League, told the House Armed Services subcommittee that volunteer work had "become a virtual albatross around the necks" of service spouses and that in the Grissom case, "both spouses were being blackmailed to support Air Force tradition."

The issue is only one area of mounting pressure against the military in the area of women's rights. An internal Defense Department watchdog group recently released a scathing report detailing allegations of widespread harassment and job discrimination against women in the military. The report prompted a congressional hearing and led Weinberger to appoint a panel to investigate the allegations.

"We would be naive to pretend that one directive will change a lifetime of the way you look at women," said the league's Reuss. "But I think that it's a basic message, at least on paper, that this is unacceptable."

The new policy on spouses' careers states, "No commander, supervisor or other {Defense Department} official will, directly or indirectly, impede or otherwise interfere with the right of every military spouse to decide whether to pursue and hold a job, to attend school, or to serve on a volunteer basis."

The order continues, "No military member will be adversely rated or suffer any adverse consequences from the decision of the member's spouse . . . nor shall a spouse's employment be a consideration in either assignments or promotions."

While "military spouses have a proud heritage of volunteer assistance to their military and civilian communities," Weinberger noted that the increasing numbers of military spouses who hold jobs "contribute directly to the morale and health of our military members."

A recent Defense Department survey found that 44 percent of officers' wives are employed.

"It is the policy of the Department of Defense that decisions to seek employment, to be homemakers and to volunteer belong to spouses," Weinberger said. He ordered all of the military services to issue rules complying with the policy by Dec. 1.

Air Force investigators found that ranking officers at Grissom created an atmosphere "in which senior officers and their wives had been conditioned to believe that the wives must be willing to give up or severely curtail their employment for their husbands to be considered for positions of higher authority."

Investigators also found that "an outdated, unwritten policy of the . . . commander discouraging wives of senior officers from working has contributed to the difficulties." But because there were no written policies that were violated, the investigators said the commanders involved should not disciplined.

After a yearlong effort to attract attention to their plight from within the Air Force, the two women took their cause to The Indianapolis Star and the independent Air Force Times weekly. This publicity prompted the Air Force to investigate the incidents, according to Pentagon officials.