Washington — WHEN he found out his little sister Jeanne had joined the Army in 1942, John Holm, then a Navy officer, was a ''typical male, I suppose - I wasn't too thrilled about it.''
Then in the middle of the war, when Capt. Jeanne Holm and her two Navy brothers came home to Portland, Ore., on leave, ''we really got to know each other,'' Mr. Holm says. ''I found I really admired her - she was a person in her own right, and very bright.''
That pattern of disarming and impressing ''typical males'' has repeated itself throughout Jeanne Holm's military and civilian career. As a World War II truck driver and troop trainer, she got military men over their ''initial reaction,'' as she puts it. After the war, Congress passed the Women's Armed Service Integration Act, which gave permanent status to women in all the armed forces. At that time Ms. Holm reentered the military, switching to the Air Force.
''I'd enjoyed my time in the military, and thought there would be good jobs available,'' now Major General Holm said in a recent interview. ''I never thought I'd make a career of it,'' she added.
She served in Berlin during the airlift and headed up Manpower at NATO headquarters for the southern region of Europe in Naples, Italy - where she lived in a 2,000-year-old cave and learned to sail. Then she returned to the States to head up the Women's Air Force (WAF), helping to double its size and opening up door after door to women in the military, first as full colonel, later as the Air Force's first woman brigadier general, and then major general.
Retiring after close to 33 years in uniform, she took her advocacy to the Ford White House as special assistant to the President for women's issues. There she initiated the Justice Department study - recently brought to light in the Reagan administration by former Justice Department consultant Barbara Honegger - of laws and regulations that discriminate against women. Then, it was back to the Defense Department to serve on the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services.
Lately, she's been writing a book - ''Women in the Military'' (Presidio Press), an overview of the ''unfinished revolution.'' The book took her four years to churn out. Her name has been mentioned for several upper-echelon jobs in the Pentagon and the White House, and her family is urging her to write her memoirs (''My friends are relieved I haven't,'' she quips).
But ask her what she's going to do in the future, and she says, ''Ski. I never plan my career.'' She adds later: ''I believe in planning my recreation.''
By her own reckoning, she has achieved ''more than I ever, ever thought I would,'' rising from the tomboy kid of a divorced mother, determined to ''help my country'' by joining the Army in World War II.
Outspoken journalist Sarah McClendon, who went through officer training with General Holm in the Army, tells this story: ''Jeanne was so determined to join up, but was apparently quite poor in those days and didn't have the money for a hotel. So she spent the night in the car on her way to signing up,'' she says.
Persistence - some say grit - was one key ingredient of her success. She believes, however, that she rose through ''good luck, mentors, and doing my homework.'' She says that she joined ''at just the right time. I was one of the youngest women in officer training, and when it came time to bring women into the highest ranks, I was the ranking female.''
But admirers and critics (and she has few of the latter) see her style as the main factor behind her success. Says one shrewd observer of successful Washington women, ''She believes in working within the system and never presents herself as a radical.''
''She's a team player,'' says Karen Keisling, General Holm's deputy in the White House and now principal deputy to the assistant secretary of the Air Force. ''In the White House, if someone said something in a speech she disapproved of, she'd go back to that person - she wouldn't try to go over his head.''
Ms. Keisling also observes that ''General Holm is a strong advocate for women , but she's politically conservative and believes in a strong national defense.''
Her positions on women's issues may have earned her the reputation among some Defense Department officers as the advocate for women in the military - period. ''But she never forgets that the prime purpose of the military is a strong national defense. She doesn't go overboard,'' says Navy friend Fran McKee, a retired admiral.
''She's not a stormy person like me,'' says Ms. McClendon. ''I'll do something that I know Jeanne would never do, and then I'll get in trouble for it , and she'll come over and console me.''
''I see myself as a catalyst for change - more of a strategist for change than one who forces issues,'' says the general herself. An important part of that strategy is ''doing her homework,'' say admirers and critics, who agree that she never presents an issue without knowing all the facts first.
Some argue, however, that the facts are neatly packaged with the general's charm and good looks. They wonder how much being an attractive, cheerful, witty blonde has to do with her rise to the top.
General Holm concedes that looks have played a part, asking rhetorically, ''Have you ever seen an ugly general?''
Whatever her technique, General Holm managed to chalk up a number of successes for women in military and civilian life. And although friends say she is ''happily single,'' having come through the military at a time when getting married and having children meant automatic discharge, her toughest fights have perhaps been in the area of the military's family policy.
Her book catalogs her efforts in 1970 to overturn the 1951 automatic-discharge policy for women with minor children. She says the efforts were ''considered radical at the time - and we weren't even talking about pregnancy, but about women marrying men with minor children!''
She got a supportive opinion from the Judge Advocate General's office and developed an ally in civilian lawyer James P. Goode in the Air Force Personnel office, stating her case to him in this memo:
''The ultimate responsibility for the care and welfare of children rests with the parent, not, we submit, with the Air Force. For the Air Force to become overly involved in evaluating the capability of a parent to care for his or her children constitutes unwarranted meddling into their private affairs. We do not meddle in this fashion in the personal affairs of male military personnel. . . .''
In this case, however, her persistence wasn't enough to get the automatic-discharge policy overturned, and she came within two weeks of voluntary retirement. ''I was disgusted and just wanted out,'' she says. ''Then I got a new boss (Lt. Gen. Robert J. Dixon, deputy chief of staff for personnel) , who saw the whole thing differently.'' He ordered his staff to rescind the minor-children discharge policy.
''He turned to me and said, 'Is that enough action for you?' '' she recalls with a grin, ''and asked me if I would stick around to see what else we could overturn.''
In a speech before the 25th convention of the National Woman's Party, which traces its origins back to the women's suffrage movement, she cataloged some of those overturnings brought about by many different people in the military - schools opened, job opportunities set before women, pregnancy policies reversed.
The changes came, she feels, not just because women in the military were advocating change, but because of ''pragmatic considerations.'' Of the 1.75 million military positions open today, she says, only 45 percent are combat or combat-related, a figure that ''demonstrates the potential for women in the military.'' The need to free men for combat positions, coupled with a need for educated personnel, rather than ''sheer brawn,'' to operate today's weaponry, as she puts it, has made women a necessary and integral part of today's military.
And although she says that the 1980s will be a ''period of consolidation'' for women in the military, she hints at potential arenas for change, focusing especially on the restrictions against women in combat. ''There is more confusion and mythology surrounding that term,'' she said in her speech for the National Woman's Party. ''It's like in 'Alice in Wonderland' - was it the Queen of Hearts who said, 'When I use a word, it means what I want it to mean' ?''
She believes that ''geography determines the combat zone, not policies,'' and wonders if the wars of tomorrow will include anything as precise as a combat and noncombat area.
But she falls short of recommending women to combat jobs or advocating a draft for women, suggesting instead that we should ''focus on issues that need to be resolved: To what extent can and should women be involved in defense? What are women's rights and obligations as citizens? Should they be allowed to fight? Required to fight?''
Then she zeroes in on what, to her, is the ultimate military question: ''How can we achieve the best possible defense?'' For Jeanne Holm, that's the bottom line.