Washington — Much to the shock -- and delight -- of some of his opponents, President Reagan delivered promptly on his pledge to put a woman on the US Supreme Court. Many of his harshest critics lined up to praise his selection of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
But beyond that historic appointment, the last year has brought retreats as well as advances for women and minorities trying to reach the executive suites of official Washington.
By now the new administration has divvied up its executive jobs, put 42 new federal judges on lower court benches, and set in motion budget cuts laying off thousands of federal workers. A check finds that on each of these fronts, 1981 has been an uneasy year for women and minorities.
In his executive branch appointments, Mr. Reagan got off to a slow start in appointing women. He failed to name a woman Cabinet secretary. His only woman Cabinet appointment turned out to be for United Nations ambassador, a post which has not always been counted as a Cabinet slot.
Since those early days, the Reagan effort to hire women has gathered more steam, but it has been a come-from-behind race.
Overall, the Reagan administration has named women to 11 percent of its top posts, estimates the National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC), which closely monitors presidential hiring. The caucus credits the Carter administration with 14 percent by the end of his term.
What bothers critics more than numbers is placement of women. They argue that after years of steady progress, women are moving backwards. Both Presidents Eisenhower and Ford picked a woman as a department head, and President Carter appointed two to his first Cabinet. During his first year, Mr. Carter also appointed two undersecretaries and four general counsels who were women. The NWPC points out that the Reagan administration has batted zero so far in naming women to these posts.
Upshur J. Moorhead, executive assistant in the White House personnel office, rejects the notion that women have lost ground. ''We hired more women than Carter did his first year in office,'' he says. Conceding that ''we can't compare'' on the Cabinet level, he adds, ''Many of us feel that the appointment of O'Connor was of some significance as well.''
Mr. Moorhead also ticks off independent agencies now directed by Reagan-appointed women: the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. ''The Reagan administration's appointments of women are substantive and compare with any administration in history within the same time frame,'' he says.
On hiring minorities, he says that Reagan has ''selected more Hispanics than any other administration - almost twice as many as any other.'' Of 415 to 425 top executive jobs, 18 went to Hispanics, while Carter named only 10 his first year, says Moorhead.
One Cabinet post and 18 of the top sub-Cabinet jobs went to blacks. Civil rights groups, often at odds with the administration, criticize not so much the low numbers but the low profile of black officeholders.
''They are virtually invisible,'' complains Maudine Cooper, who heads the Washington office of the National Urban League. The blacks now working at the White House are ''wonderful people, nice people,'' she says, but they are not speaking out in public or offering leadership on black issues.
Melvin Bradley, senior policy adviser to the President and one of his first black appointees, agrees that black officials aren't spending much time in the klieg lights. ''Blacks have important positions in this administration,'' he says, but unlike earlier times, ''you don't have blacks in the media all the time.''
Mr. Bradley, who helped in minority recruiting for the new administration, fits his own description. Working quietly within the White House on a variety of urban and business issues, he serves as unofficial liaison for minority concerns.
The one black Cabinet member, Samuel R. Pierce Jr., secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has earned the nickname ''Silent Sam,'' to the disappointment of civil rights leaders looking for a more public advocate.
In his first year President Reagan has set no records for picking women or minority judges for lower federal courts. He named nine circuit court judges, all men, one black. Of 33 new district court judges, all are white, and one is a woman.
Republican senators have the job of proposing names for judgeships, and they are not listing women and minorities, says Steve Hart, special assistant for the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Policy.
Kathy Wilson, who chairs the NWPC, says of the fact that the senators are not recommending women candidates, ''My conclusion is that there is no pressure from the top.''
The Department of Justice now is studying 16 candidates, including two Hispanics and two women, for district court judgeships.
Meanwhile, the Reagan budget ax that is chopping the government to a smaller size is also threatening progress that women and minorities have made in the civil service. A study released last week by Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D) of Maryland found that minorities and managerial women have been the biggest losers so far.
Under the last hired (or promoted), first fired (or demoted) rule, minorities and the federal civil service have been hit by a rate 50 percent higher than other federal workers. Reductions-in-force (RIF) actions have touched women administrators by a rate 123 percent above average.
The complex federal seniority system includes no provisions to save jobs for special groups except for veterans, who have preference in hiring and protection from layoffs.