Leaders of women's organizations across the country believe that the Senate response to Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood's reported sexual misconduct may be a historic opportunity to change the way Congress holds its members accountable on employment laws and ethics rules, to demonstrate that women can effectively fight back, and to educate the public about the pervasiveness of sexual harassment.

"This could be another one of those moments as important, as impressive as the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings," said Rosemary Dempsey, National Organization for Women (NOW) vice president. "But for that to happen, we have to move quickly, and we have to convince senators we are serious."

The Senate ethics committee has been conducting a preliminary probe of the allegations that Packwood made unwanted sexual advances toward women who worked for or with him. The committee is expected to meet next week with the intention of deciding whether to expand the inquiry and whether to bring in an outside counsel.

Packwood, a Republican elected last year to his fifth term, has explained his behavior by saying he "just didn't get it" until now. Feminists see Packwood's case as a post-Anita Hill, post-Year of the Woman test: Can women use their newfound political clout to make sure the still male-dominated Senate finally "gets it?"

For some women, it is also a test of ethics: How do advocates of women's rights decide where to draw the line when a political friend faces serious accusations about his behavior towards women?

Feminist leaders in Washington have been criticized for being slow to respond forcefully to accounts published Nov. 22 in The Washington Post that Packwood, who in 1970 introduced the first abortion rights legislation in Congress, inappropriately kissed and embraced women in his employ. It was their counterparts in Oregon who immediately called on Packwood to resign and put together a coalition to force him from office. Packwood has said he will not resign.

If there was hesitation, said NOW President Patricia Ireland, it was because the revelations were "like a blow in the stomach, where you have to gasp to regain your balance." NOW called for Packwood to resign Dec. 11.

Many of the dozen leaders interviewed acknowledged some initial ambivalence about going after a political friend. "When one of your principles -- loyalty to a senator who has backed your issues -- is in conflict with another -- speaking out against despicable behavior -- you are torn," said a prominent woman leader who did not want to be named. But in the end, she added, "I can't condone or excuse his conduct for a second."

Although there is debate about how strong Packwood's record on women's issues has been in recent years, Ireland said even if it were perfect, women should not look the other way. That would only raise questions of "Can we be bought? And, if so, how cheap?" she said.

Harriet Woods, president of the National Women's Political Caucus, called on Packwood to resign because "he had gone beyond denial to cover up which seemed to compound his betrayal of office." She said that Packwood "indicated he had made mistakes in the past but felt that admission clears the decks. Can you imagine a U.S. senator getting caught pilfering money and saying, 'No one said it was wrong, so I did it. Let's forget it and move ahead?' "

Feminist leaders have been staking out different roles, with Ireland and Woods positioning themselves on the front lines, while others, including Marsha Greenberger of the National Women's Law Center and Judith Lichtman of the Women's Legal Defense Fund, working behind the scenes.

Greenberger and Lichtman have not called for Packwood's resignation but for "due process" and a prompt and fair investigation. Both said their groups will press hard to insure that result.

Two longtime feminists and Packwood friends, Gloria Steinem and Kate Michelman of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) said they want a thorough ethics committee investigation and a significant change in the way Congress handles sexual harassment.

Packwood's behavior "has been an egregious violation of his commitment to women's issues," Michelman said. She said she has "no problem" with the Oregon NARAL chapter helping lead the state's coalition organized to unseat him and has privately told one colleague she thinks Packwood should resign.

Following The Post's story, Steinem released a statement in which she said, "We all deserve to have our lives judged in context," noting that for 20 years, "Packwood has been a courageous champion for legislation that the female half of this country desparately needs."

And while she stands by her statement, Steinem said in a recent interview that Packwood's behavior was wrong and that she thinks Oregonians deserve another election. Steinem has contributed $200 to the Oregon coalition organized to force Packwood out of office.

Feminist activists believe they are having impact, noting that Senate leaders decided to seat Packwood "without prejudice" to the outcome of a pending inquiry into the validity of his election.

Betty Roberts, a former Oregon Supreme Court justice who is spearheading the effort to force Packwood out, had lobbied Senate leaders not to seat Packwood in the 103rd Congress and NOW staged a rally Jan. 4 to protest his seating.

Ireland called the Senate's action a victory that may presage a change in the way power is exercised in Washington. The Senate "pointedly acknowledged Packwood was seated under a cloud," in part a reflection, she believes, of the importance of the 1992 elections in which record numbers of women were elected to Congress.

Ireland said one major challenge is to build a broad-based coalition and to cast Packwood's case as much more than a "women's issue." She wants to frame it not only as what she sees as Packwood's abuse of power but also as a violation of women's civil rights and as a symbol of a Congress that does not adhere to the laws it creates for others.

Ireland said the Washington coalition she is forming will work with the Oregon group to "birddog the process," seeking public hearings, an independent counsel and assurances that the witnesses will not get the Anita Hill treatment.

Last month, Packwood said, "I'm not going to debate the conduct as alleged," but on a swing through Oregon this week, he has taken a more aggressive stance, saying women who appear before the Senate ethics committee can expect sharp questioning from his lawyers who may bring up their sexual histories. The coalition wants committee assurances that such questions will not be allowed unless similar questions about Packwood's sexual history are permitted.

"Fair or unfair, many people feel the ethics committee is set up to protect the legislator rather than respond to the victim," Woods said.

Most of the women leaders say they want the ethics committee probe to result in harsh punishment. "If the recommendation seems quite divorced from the allegations, they may be in a heap of trouble," said Woods, who also thinks each senator should have to vote publicly on Packwood.

If Packwood does not resign or is not forced out by the Senate, they want the next worst punishment -- his seniority stripped, "based in part on the theory that his power to hire and fire women should be as limited as possible," Woods said.

Woods and Fund for the Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal expressed concern about the disparity between Packwood's resources to fight an investigation and those of the women.

"The financial burden of pursuing this is on the women and women's groups," Smeal says, adding that the coalition will raise funds to help pay the expenses of its campaign and the women who testify.

Packwood has set up a legal defense fund that can receive annual contributions of up to $10,000 each from individuals and political action committees. Packwood, who has raised millions of campaign dollars from women over the years, also is allowed to spend the more than $880,000 in leftover campaign funds on his legal defense. He has yet to say whether he intends to use the funds.

Finally, all the women say they want Congress, which has exempted itself from federal sexual harassment laws, to overhaul its internal procedures.

Michelman said that "Senator Packwood's behavior is probably not an isolated situation on the Hill or in the Senate." The Senate needs to use this case "to examine its own global attitudes and treatment of women," she said.