MOSCOW, NOV. 27 -- Raisa Gorbachev is more than the wife of the Soviet leader. In her trim suits and fur coats, with her attractive smile and soft haircut, through her public involvement in Soviet culture and fashion, she has become a symbol of Mikhail Gorbachev's high-profile, western style of leadership.

Yet 55-year-old Raisa Gorbachev, despite a positive image abroad, is not popular at home. In fact, she is something of a political liability, a lightning rod for all kinds of grumblings and rumors -- which, in turn, makes her a symbol of the Soviet population's complex attitudes toward women who move onto center stage.

More than a year ago, an elderly man from the far eastern peninsula of Kamchatka was watching television when the news opened to Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to Khabarovsk. Raisa Gorbachev was shown smiling at her husband's side, carrying a bunch of roses, attentively following his conversation with the crowd.

The elderly man, his stomach straining against a pair of old-fashioned suspenders, shook his head. "Back where I come from," he said, peering at the screen, "we don't take to that kind of thing."

For years, wives of Soviet leaders stayed demurely in their husbands' shadows. Not only did this conform to Marxist ideas about playing down the role of personality -- hence, personal life -- in politics, but it also fit into ancient patterns of patriarchal Russia where men ruled and women cowered.

In Soviet Russia, this tradition evolved into something different: Socialism, after all, assumes equality of the sexes. But while that equality exists in law, it has not penetrated basic attitudes.

"This is an Asian country in that respect," one Moscow intellectual said in a conversation about Raisa Gorbachev. "You can't change that."

Soviet propaganda ceaselessly points out that women are full and equal participants in the country's work and decries the discrimination that lingers in the West. Figures are cited on the large percentage of women in the Supreme Soviet, or parliament, local councils, trade unions and key professions, and their equal pay for equal work is noted.

In fact, in the places that really count, women are conspicuously few: Of the 307 members of the Communist Party's Central Committee, only 11 are women; no woman sits on the Council of Ministers. In 70 years of Soviet history, only one woman -- Ekaterina Furtseva, minister of culture from 1960 to 1974 -- has sat on the ruling Politburo.

Zoia Pukhova, head of the Soviet Women's Committee, drew attention to these gaps in a critical article published this year in the party journal Kommunist. "Some spheres of governmental activity turn out to be virtually barred to women and not all because they are harmful for the female organism or future motherhood," she said.

Pukhova cited these statistics: Women make up 50.8 percent of the total work force but only 12 percent of managerial staff, 12 percent of engineers and 14 percent of shop foremen; 40 percent of the academic and science fields are women, yet they make up only 2 percent of the prestigious Academy of Science. Because women tend to have lower qualifications than men, they generally earn less, Pukhova said.

Condescending attitudes toward professional women are widespread. Viktor Afanasev, editor of Pravda, recently explained why his newspaper has few female editors. This is not women's work, he told a stunned group of visiting American newspaper editors. "Would you want your wives to work until 5 o'clock in the morning?"

Even Gorbachev on occasion reveals an old-fashioned view of a woman's role. In his recent book, he writes of making it "possible for women to return to their purely womanly mission" -- a view widely held in households and offices around the country.

Still, the 56-year-old leader has spoken out for the need to put more women in decision-making roles and has acknowledged the special difficulties faced by Soviet working women who bear the brunt of housework, shopping and child rearing.

The Gorbachev era has provided some new role models, most notably Aleksandra Biryukova, Central Committee secretary for light industry, and sociologist Tatiana Zaslavskaya, a leading proponent of Gorbachev's social and economic reforms.

But by far the most visible woman in the Soviet Union today is Raisa Gorbachev -- a fact that seems to have spawned more resentment than admiration.

The animosity toward Raisa Gorbachev cuts across all lines and emerges in various forms: Some women envy her elegance, others are ashamed of her slow, mechanical style of speech; some men see her prominence as an affront to Gorbachev's authority, others think that she is wasting the government's money.

Even her supporters begin from a defensive position: "She tries hard," a 37-year-old writer said. "She supports both Russian culture and links to the West. I see her influence as being only for the good." But he admitted that, when he takes this position in group conversations, he is often alone.

"I don't know anyone who feels kindly toward her," a young professional woman said.

Western analysts note that the hostility toward Raisa Gorbachev surfaces in the political sphere. Her name even cropped up in rumors associated with former Moscow party boss Boris Yeltsin's outburst at a recent party meeting that led to his dismissal. The rumors are unconfirmed and widely discounted, but attest to her unpopularity. Some accounts had Yeltsin questioning her constantly changing wardrobe, another referring to her alleged Tatar heritage and a third to her presence at the party meeting itself.

Two-and-a-half years ago, when Raisa Gorbachev first began making public appearances, many people here were delighted: At last, there was a Soviet first lady who was a good advertisement for Soviet women, fashion and public manners.

Then it became clear that Raisa Gorbachev had more than a walk-on role. Last year, she became a member of the presidium of the Soviet Cultural Fund and, in that capacity, has been shown on television accepting gifts of Russian artwork from foreign visitors. In the fashion world, she has been instrumental in bringing foreign designers to Moscow and presided over a round-table discussion with representatives of the Soviet clothing industry, which was published in the magazine Working Woman.

And she has continued to accompany her husband on virtually every trip inside and outside the country, even to a collective farm near Moscow where her city clothes were in sharp contrast to the rough jackets of farm women.

Sometimes, breaking unwritten protocol rules, Raisa Gorbachev even joins in her husband's curbside banter. "Mikhail Sergeevich, look" she said to him sweetly at a school in Tselinograd in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. "Look, these children are making the same items we saw at that factory today."

These kinds of comments, aired on national news, seem to set Russians' teeth on edge. Some, arguing that the hostility to Raisa Gorbachev is not a form of jealousy, note that other Politburo wives also have become more visible lately, but do not evoke resentment.

For westerners used to the highly visible though blurry roles of political spouses, the reaction to Raisa Gorbachev is puzzling. While her comments often seem forced or even simplistic, they are generally innocuous and, by western standards, her appearances are modest.

Her own life story is still sketchy. She has a degree in philosophy and once had a job at a pedagogic institute that she relinquished several years ago. When her husband was party boss of his native Stavropol, she wrote a thesis on the family budgets of farm workers at a local collective farm.

According to classmates, the two met in Moscow in the early 1950s when they were both students at Moscow University and were married in their fourth year there. But Raisa Gorbachev has refused to give details about where she is from, telling reporters recently only that she is "from Russia."

Although reports continue to circulate about her spending sprees on trips abroad, in fact her wardrobe is hardly flashy. Reports of an extravagant life style are also apparently exaggerated. According to sources, the Gorbachev family moved this fall to an apartment in a new building in Lenin Hills, home to at least one high-ranking family, and are finishing work on a modest five-room dacha, or country house, outside Moscow.