A report yesterday warned of the worsening condition of the nation's 15.6 million "displaced homemakers" -- women who stayed at home to raise families but lost the support of their husbands through divorce, desertion or death.

Unlike women who worked prior to getting married, those who never left the work force or those who bore children without a husband, the displaced homemakers are women who followed the American tradition of marrying and staying at home to raise a family.

"They are the women who packed the lunches, organized car pools, volunteered at church functions and ran the scout troops," said Jill Miller, executive director of the National Displaced Homemakers Network, which issued the report.

But then, as a result of the death of their husbands, or divorce or separation, they were left largely to fend for themselves, often without job skills, without health insurance, without pension or social security protection, and with little or no child-support.

"They are penalized for having made the choice to be a traditional mother," said Miller.

"Our study paints a picture of displaced homemakers' lives that is unrelentingly grim," said Cheryl Brown Henderson, president of the homemakers group.

"More than one in three live below the federal poverty line, and another one in four have incomes of less than 150 percent of the poverty line," Henderson said. "Perhaps the best indication of their tenuous financial status is the fact that nearly one in five displaced homemakers are doubled-up in housing with other families or individuals." More than half are elderly.

Henderson said every one of "the 22 million other homemakers who are not in the labor force today run the risk of becoming displaced tomorrow."

The study defined displaced homemakers as formerly married women whose principal job had been homemaking but whose families broke up because of divorce, separation or death, and who are not working full-time now. Among the younger women, divorce and separation are predominant; many of the older women are widows.

The report found that two-fifths of these women work part-time or seasonally, often at poor wages without health insurance or other fringe benefits. Three-quarters of displaced homemakers are white, nearly 2.5 million black and 1 million Hispanic.

The report said the number of displaced homemakers had increased about 200,000 annually since 1980. The report gave the total for Virginia as 344,735 and for Maryland as 302,810, but had no current figures for the District of Columbia.