Washington — IN this year of much talk about a woman on a presidential ticket, there is a certain irony. Democrats, who need nominees, have few nationally known women to choose among. Republicans have recently produced a string of famous women, including two senators, three Cabinet members, and a Supreme Court justice. But, with the incumbents locked in for 1984, there is no vacancy at the GOP top.
Even so, the idea of nominating a woman has not left the Republicans untouched. ''I think it could happen in the Republican Party as early as '88,'' says Margaret T. Hance, who co-chairs the reelection campaign of President Reagan and Vice-President George Bush. The GOP would be ''in the best position to do this, because we have (more) women in . . . higher positions than the Democrats,'' the former mayor of Phoenix says.
Some are qualified now, she says, adding that ''I wouldn't want to select them today'' because the choice in four years will be wider, with ''more media attention given women as potential candidates.''
Already the prominent GOP women are beginning to come under closer scrutiny. Among the most frequently mentioned are Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole, Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas, and former Ambassador Anne L. Armstrong. In interviews, all welcomed the discussion of putting women in political high places, but none revealed an ambition to attain either the Oval Office or the vice-presidential suite.
Perhaps the most frequently named for a spot on a Republican ticket is Secretary Dole, whose career in government service has soared during the Reagan administration.
While asserting that ''I really don't have any plans to run,'' the transportation secretary says it is ''quite likely'' that Republicans will be first to make the breakthrough of nominating a woman, since they already have the first woman on the Supreme Court and two woman senators.
Mrs. Dole has never run for public office. ''Running for office is not something that I have to do or I won't be fulfilled in life,'' she notes. But she is nonetheless one of the most visible women in government today.
Earlier this year Secretary Dole took her proposed $28 billion Department of Transportation budget to the firing line before a Senate appropriations subcommittee. There she faced a long list of complaints, centering on the reduction of air service to small towns and remote areas since airline deregulation began.
The transportation secretary smoothly delivered answers to those concerns. ''We are still in a period of transition,'' she said. But she didn't budge from her support of deregulation.
Later, Sen. Mark Andrews (R) of North Dakota, the subcommittee chairman, gave Mrs. Dole high marks. ''I think she's doing an excellent job,'' he said, crediting her ''quiet persuasion'' for shaping decisions at the White House. ''She's no rubber stamp'' for the President, he said.
Sitting behind her massive desk on the 10th floor of the Transportation Building, Mrs. Dole traces her career back to her Salisbury, N.C., grade school, where she first delved into student government, and to Duke University, where she was student-body president.
After earning a law degree at Harvard University, she held federal posts ranging from a job in the education of the deaf to serving as director of the President's Committee on Consumer Interests. In 1973 President Nixon appointed her to the Federal Trade Commission, a watchdog for business and advertising practices.
After serving behind the scenes as an adviser and liaison for President Reagan, Mrs. Dole moved into the spotlight a year ago when she was named to the Cabinet. She is the first woman to be transportation secretary and, she likes to add, head of a branch of the armed services. (The US Coast Guard is in her department.)
Hers was not exactly the career path her Southern parents expected, she says, but they balked only once - when she decided on law school. ''I remember my mother saying, 'Well it's your life,' '' she recalls, but they backed her anyway.
She ran into more skepticism at Harvard, where she was one of only 25 women in her class. And then there was ''Ladies Day'' in property law class, the once-a-semester day when the professor called on women students. ''That was his tradition,'' the transportation secretary says. ''It was terrible.''
Such experiences were signs that she was on the ''cutting edge of a revolution'' in society's view toward women, she says. They also made an indelible imprint on her memory and helped make her a supporter of women's rights.
Although she has a 102,000-person department to run, Mrs. Dole continues to advise the White House on women's issues and to focus attention on measures ranging from pension reform to collection of child-support payments, which she worked on while at the White House. In her own department she has instituted programs for training and promoting women.
''I spend a lot of hours here working on those issues,'' she says. ''It's something I care very deeply about because I think there are real needs.''
She bristles at the suggestion that the Reagan administration has had an anti-woman bias and defends him energetically with statistics on his female appointments and legislation such as child-support enforcement.
On her agenda for this election year will be a number of campaign swings on behalf of her boss and Vice-President Bush. As she puts it, ''I think there's a record that's being somewhat ignored, and it's my job to get it out there - to push it.''
But she says she is not eyeing an election campaign for herself, despite the talk of her as a future vice-president. ''If a woman is qualified for vice-president, she's qualified for president,'' she says. ''She might as well go to the top.''
She adds, ''I have no plans for myself.''
The member of her household who does have well-publicized presidential hopes is her husband, Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas. He gives her ''a lot of support, wonderful support'' in her career, says Mrs. Dole.
For his part, Senator Dole has a favorite joke about his wife's career. A reporter called to ask his opinion of a Bush-Dole ticket, he says, and he responded that he wasn't interested in becoming vice-president. Dole says the reporter came back with, ''That's a good thing. We didn't have you in mind.'' Also on the list of potential vice-presidents is Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, who began her political career in an unconventional way. ''I'd never, ever really thought of being an active candidate,'' she recalls. Her life was filled mainly with raising four children, born in such quick succession that the four were under the age of five at one point.
During the child-rearing days, she confined her political involvement to going door-to-door during local campaigns, devouring newspapers, and serving on her school board. Then her life changed. Her children grew up, and her marriage dissolved.
After she had worked only a year for GOP Sen. James B. Pearson, he decided to retire; and Mrs. Kassebaum surprised the Kansas political world by tossing her most-unexpected hat into the ring.
As she tells it, she jumped ''in a way I'm sure that looked like Mary Poppins dropping out of the sky with her umbrella.'' A group of friends who decided it was time for a woman senator first suggested the idea. After much pacing on her farm, she decided to enter the race.
She asked few friends, and political pros gave her little encouragement. But her mother urged her to run, even if her famous father, the 1936 Republican candidate for president, Alfred M. Landon, counseled against it. (''I think he thought it would be very costly, and he worried about the publicity because my husband and I were separated,'' she says.)
She won partly because her famous middle name gave her recognition and partly because of her contacts from the University of Kansas. This year she is heavily favored to win a second term.
During her first term, Senator Kassebaum has increasingly gained respect as an independent thinker who will buck the White House when she disagrees, especially on US policies in Central America.
But she disclaims any interest in higher office. She has announced that if reelected, she will retire after her next term. ''I'm very much a Kansan at heart and look forward to going back,'' she says.
The senator is largely unmoved by the vice-president talk. ''I suppose it's helpful,'' she says. ''I've always said, 'Why not president?' If you feel you have the ability, you go after it and you fight for it,'' she says. ''I don't think we should wait for the men to say, 'Oh well, it's time to have a woman vice-president.' I think if the right woman comes along, it's not going to be a question of whether the party's ready for a woman.''
As for being that woman, she says, ''I can't see it.'' She does lay claim to being qualified, however, an assertion she would not make in 1980. At that time she had won the job of chairing the Republican National Convention. ''It was just a showcase'' position, she recalls, but she wanted it enough to lobby hard for it.
The post also landed her an invitation to be listed among the vice-presidential possibilities in '80, but she refused to be included, citing her lack of experience after only two years in the Senate. As for now, she says she prefers being a senator. ''I really enjoy the Senate,'' she says. ''I feel like I have much more impact on policy than I would have as vice-president.''
Moreover, Mrs. Kassebaum has doubts about whether the male politicians are ready to give the top jobs to women. ''In all honesty, they say it, but I think there's a question, 'Well, can she stay the course?' ''
The Kansas senator, whose slight build and soft voice are hardly the stereotype of a politician, recalls questions raised during her first campaign, such as ''Will she be tough?'' and ''Will she be aggressive?''
''I found that you don't have to be aggressive to be tough,'' she says. ''It's knowing what you care about in the way of an issue and your goals and your values that are important. And if you have that, then I think you indeed are tough. But I think a woman always has to face that (questioning attitude).''
If any woman has come close to a vice-presidential nomination, it is Anne L. Armstrong, a Texan who has served three Republican presidents and won the hearts of Britons during a short stint as ambassador to the Court of St. James's.
Today she has moved far from the limelight, except when her name appears on lists of women qualified to be vice-president, because her federal role is part-time and mostly secret. She chairs the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, a group of 20 private citizens which oversees US intelligence gathering.
''I don't know why I'm doing this (interview),'' she begins, after she ushers her visitor into her elegant suite of offices at the Old Executive Office Building and lays down some rules. ''No. 1, I can't talk too much about my job'' because the work is classified, she says. ''No. 2, as far as the Republicans go, I wouldn't change the ticket.'' But she also says, ''I'm glad women are being considered'' for the vice-presidency.
The longtime political activist, who was raised in New Orleans, attended an exclusive girls' boarding school in Virginia, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College, lives on a ranch not far from Houston with rancher husband, Tobin.
She began in the grass roots of Texas politics and has woven her political career around a home life that included raising five children, now grown. Later she became counselor to President Nixon, whom she staunchly defended until the facts surrounding the Watergate scandal became inescapable. She emerged personally unscathed from the Nixon White House, and President Ford appointed her ambassador to Britain.
Mrs. Armstrong, a moderate who confesses that she once opposed the more conservative Ronald Reagan, was listed as a potential running mate for candidate Reagan in 1980. But it was in 1976 that she had her closest brush with the vice-presidency. Although President Ford never asked her directly to be on his ticket, there were several days when it was a real possibility.
She rejected the notion, as she has several political opportunities, for family reasons. Today she lives in Texas and commutes twice a month to Washington for her advisory work and says, ''At this point in my life I cannot take on a full-time job away from home.''
But would she like to make a run at elective politics? ''I don't remove myself,'' she says. ''I would love it.''
The national discussion of putting a woman on a ticket is ''enormously healthy,'' she says.
Moreover, the vice-presidency is the realistic first step, she holds. ''There are people with reservations, and so I think the odds are better. I think it would be much harder in this country for a woman to leap immediately into the presidency.''
The problems she sees include a pool of qualified women that is ''still a puddle'' compared with male candidates, plus deep-seated doubts about abilities of women. ''There are not enough converts out there who believe in women as equals of men in intelligence and determination and character,'' Mrs. Armstrong says.
She is nonetheless optimistic. ''I don't know whether they are (going to nominate a woman) this year, but my guess is we're getting close,'' she says.