Patricia Ireland, vice president of the National Organization for Women, called it "one of the issues that makes our stomachs hurt," an appropriately visceral summary of how powerfully many American women reacted this week to the Senate's continuing debate over the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas.

The bitter rhetoric surrounding law professor Anita Hill's charge that Thomas sexually harassed her 10 years ago revealed a startlingly deep split between men's views of sexual harassment and the views of women. Before the Senate's last-minute decision to postpone its vote, women reacted angrily -- and with apparent shock -- to what they saw as the male-dominated chamber's apparent lack of zeal in investigating the charge and initial unwillingness to delay the nomination long enough to examine its merits.

"What disturbs me as much as the allegations themselves," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) told her colleagues -- 98 male and one female -- yesterday, "is that the Senate appears not to take the charge of sexual harassment seriously."

Women repeatedly said yesterday that men -- at least the men of the Senate -- just didn't get it. "I'm taken aback by how incredibly difficult it's been to get them to understand," said Kate Michelman, National Abortion Rights Action League president. "But I know their phones are ringing just like our phones are ringing."

The callers were not just professional women, or those active in women's organizations -- although such organizations quickly mobilized for action.

By yesterday morning, it was difficult to place calls through the harried operators at the main Capitol switchboard. Paul Smith, press secretary to Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who had urged the Senate to press ahead with the vote, said: "We never get this many calls on a subject that's before the floor. This is really an emotional issue."

Julie Rosson, press secretary to Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), said, "We're just flooded; we've gotten over a thousand calls," including calls to the senator's state office. "That's not more than any other issue, but for a one-day total it's very heavy." Most of the callers opposed Thomas's confirmation or favored postponing the vote, she added.

"I think men are being educated," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "I think they're stunned by the reaction."

Even within the Bush administration, some women quietly were seething, privately saying the Senate's treatment of the issue had ignited long-simmering complaints that the administration is, as one put it, "a boys' club at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue."

One top female official noted, "Our problem here is that {the White House} does not have one senior female who could call Hill on this and do it with the credibility that comes with knowing what sexual harassment is."

"You have a fundamental credibility problem when the boys at the White House and the boys in the Senate say, 'Hey, sexual harassment. No way.' " The official said that "half the guys up there lamenting now what a serious charge this is had their hands on . . . some underpaid female aide last week" because "the culture of sexual harassment" is alive in Washington.

Several administration women dismissed the charges made by Hill as probably politically motivated. But they said they were angered by how automatically the White House dismissed them.

Women's organizations said the senators would have to answer for their actions at the polls. "I can assure you, we are going to fire up, and if necessary we will find a woman to run against every one of these guys," said Harriet Woods, executive director of the National Women's Political Caucus. "They are going to have to learn. We don't expect them to vote with us all the time, but they should show a sensitivity to the concerns of more than half the population."

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) yesterday joined six other Democratic women in Congress in crossing the Capitol to speak to Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine). "We had just watched in bewilderment at the apologias on the Senate floor, offered without any sense that the matter should be -- could be -- put to rest by resolving it rather than avoiding it."

A group of 118 female law professors, organized by Duke University professor Katharine T. Bartlett, wrote to senators urging postponement of the vote, saying, "Failing to examine these charges would send a message that sexual harassment is not a serious offense and that alleged acts of sexual harassment have no bearing on a nominee's judicial qualifications."

It was not just a clash of views, said female leaders: It was a clash of men and women, and the experiences the two sexes bring to the issue.

Anne Bryant, executive director of the American Association of University Women, said: "When the sexual harassment charge was made, {our members'} first reaction was confusion. When they learned the Senate had been sitting on this issue, they were enraged. . . . Understand that my members are moderate, mainstream women who don't get involved that readily."

Women's group leaders flocked to Capitol Hill yesterday afternoon to remind senators of their constituents' anger. "I think women understand the intimidation and fear that results from the kind of workplace harassment which many of them have been susceptible to," said Judith Lichtman, president of the Women's Legal Defense Fund. "Men walk through life largely unscathed by this kind of intimidation."

"After what I've been through on the House side, it doesn't surprise me at all," said Dorena Bertussi, who two years ago sued her boss, then-Rep. Jim Bates (D-Calif.), for sexual harassment. She dropped the case last fall after Bates was defeated for reelection; the House had issued a "letter of reproval," its lightest possible sanction. When she watched the Senate's reactions to Hill's allegation, Bertussi said, "I immediately got very hostile. I really felt for {Hill}, because I think I went through some of the same things. But at least I didn't have the president against me, and some well-known senators."

"What is startling is how what seems clear to women seems so unclear, or murky, to men," said Democratic pollster Lake.

Again and again, women returned to this theme. As Thomas supporters denounced Hill's charge and questioned her credibility, women responded with an intuitive faith: if not in Hill specifically, then in the idea that the charge was serious, and that she was describing an offense that is at once outrageous and a familiar, pervasive part of women's lives. "They're not saying this woman's allegation has to be true," said Lichtman. "What they're saying is, this has to be taken seriously."

A plurality of women respond to surveys that they have either experienced sexual harassment, witnessed it or known someone who has experienced it. In 1987, a U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board survey found that 42 percent of the female federal employees said they had been harassed on the job.

Staff writer Ann Devroy and researcher Brenda Caggiano contributed to this report.