Congress has gotten around to acknowledging the centuries-old fact that women run things in Palau, a gorgeous little island cluster in the South Pacific. Chairman J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has invited two Palauan matriarchs to tell how they risked their lives to keep their islands nuclear-free.

Rafaela Sumang and Gabriela Ngirmang put their names on a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a recent referendum that removed the nuclear ban from Palau's constitution. Ngirmang, 66, is a mother of 11. She was at the 1979 drafting session where Palau became the first nation to ban nukes -- to our intense displeasure.

Rafaela Sumang, a robust and humorous woman, is a nurse and the mother of six.

For their efforts to block a Compact of Association with the United States -- an agreement that would permit nuclear ships to call and make way for the possible construction of naval facilities in case our Philippines bases are canceled -- Ngirmang's house was firebombed and shots were fired at Sumang's.

Palauan men had filed such a lawsuit but pulled it back after making a deal with Palau's pro-compact president, Lazarus Salii. The women came forward, as they do in that country, and bravely filed another. After the bombing and shootings, they retreated. The judge, on accepting the dismissal, noted "indications of intimidation by the use of violence."

The day the two women got their baptism of fire, the father of Roman Bedor, an anti-compact activist, was shot dead outside his son's office.

Palau is the last of our trust territories in the Pacific. The United States is perfectly willing to pay the islands for accepting the compact, which means "independence." If they go along, they will receive $500 million to $1 billion over the next 15 years.

Ngirmang says, "What is independence when a third of your country is taken over by somebody else? We want the U.S. to protect us from other countries without nuclear weapons or a military base. You don't have a base in New York, but you protect New York."

The islands have a president and a parliament, but it is the women who rule. They choose the male chiefs of the clans, and they can impeach them, too. They inherit their matriarchies.

They form the backbone of resistance to the compact, traveling to villages to spread the word that independence means 50 years of virtual American occupation and danger to their incomparable coral reefs and waters.

But Palau cannot afford to stand up to Uncle Sam, says President Salii. To make a point that it is a stark choice of nukes or money, he furloughed 900 government workers, including Sumang and her husband, before the most recent vote.

One of the reasons Palau is so hard up is that five years ago, in a deal that involved kickbacks and other corruption, the government, with State Department encouragement, built a $32 million power plant with a capacity far beyond the needs of its 15,000 residents. The paradise is now dead broke.

The United States denies any coercion or complicity in the dark doings surrounding the struggle to break down Palau's no-nuke stance. But our interest is clear and sharply stated. President Reagan may say he wants to eliminate all nuclear weapons, but he is hard on countries that take him up on it prematurely.

The ambassador of New Zealand is going home after three years of never being received by Secretary of State George P. Shultz. His country, which has banned nuclear weapons, gets no U.S. intelligence or weapons training.

Over the past nine years, Palauans have been called to vote on the compact no fewer than six times. The vote in favor has reached as high as 72 percent, but under their constitution, a 75 percent vote in favor is required to change the constitution's antinuclear provision.

Finally, the president called a referendum to change the 75 percent requirement to a simple majority. It won, and Salii declared the compact in effect. But the women are stubborn. They say such a change can only be voted in a general election, scheduled for November.

Greenpeace, other environmental groups and civil liberties groups are urging them to sue again. Congress, which must ratify the compact, is holding hearings to find out how democratic the process has been in Palau.

The last time Rafaela Sumang came to a Hill hearing on Palau, she tried to protest Salii's testimony. She was surrounded, she says, by pro-compact countrymen who warned her to shut up. Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Asian and Pacific Affairs subcommittee, is looking into it.