Greenbrae, Calif. — The Geraldine Ferraros and Dianne Feinsteins of today's political world were hardly out of bobby socks when India Edwards became the first woman in United States history to be nominated for vice-president.
Never mind that she considered the nomination a ''courtesy gesture'' and immediately withdrew her name from the 1952 Democratic ticket alongside Adlai Stevenson. The fact that the Democrats even made the gesture attests to the fact that she was moving in circles of power that, until then, admitted women only by right of marriage or to serve coffee.
Although the women's movement has brought change, and women are now being talked about seriously for vice-president, Mrs. Edwards thinks the talk is still a ''gesture'' to women. And, she says, if the Democratic Party is wise, the talk will remain just a gesture for now, because the time isn't right for a woman on the ticket.
Feminists may disagree, but Mrs. Edwards has a track record of impressive political acumen. She's considered to be the first to open party leadership to women. Her instincts about this year's presidential running mate come from years of practiced political calculation on behalf of women - a track record that seems like a valiant pick-and-shovel effort compared with today's bulldozing strategy of some women's organizations.
''There are plenty of women qualified for the job. But I don't think there is a woman in our party that would be an asset to the ticket,'' she says with apologies to US Reps. Lindy Boggs, Geraldine Ferraro, and Patricia Schroeder, and San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein - all ''able'' politicians.
''The West Coast and East Coast would accept a woman, but not the 'Bible belt.' No (Democratic) woman has had the national experience'' necessary to make a solid ticket, she says. ''To pick a woman now, (Walter F.) Mondale would be gambling in a way the Democratic presidential nominee shouldn't be.''
Her position begs instant questions: If women don't take advantage of every opportunity, how can they ever make the leap to national leadership? And what about the National Organization for Women's demand for a woman nominee?
Her answers are spiced with hoots of good humor, candid observations that she often amends for purposes of publication, and bits of her own colorful past.
But women who have been active in the Democratic Party long enough to remember her are quicker than she is to justify her stand. She was their role model, earning her stripes by entering the party as a volunteer in 1944. She moved all the way to vice-chairman of the Democratic National Committee (the first woman in that position), and in 1951 was offered the chairmanship by President Harry Truman. (She turned him down, she says, because it was too close to the presidential elections of '52 for her to heal the party split that the choice of a woman was expected to bring.)
Michigan Lt. Gov. Martha Griffiths, who as a congresswoman authored the Equal Rights Amendment, offers an explanation for Mrs. Edwards. ''In large measure she sympathizes with the goals (of feminists) but disapproves of the methods.''
Having traded smoke-filled rooms for an airy waterfront apartment frequented by mischievous great-grandchildren, India Edwards is only physically removed from politics. She reads voraciously and maintains contact with friends inside the party. During this election season her datebook is marked with lecture appointments and media interviews.
Mrs. Edwards talks about women's need to strike a balance between being a ''doormat'' and a steamroller.
''Women get exactly the kind of treatment they accept,'' she asserts. But, she adds, they won't be any more successful by being abrasive than a man would be. ''Women have always had the balance of power. And I do not approve of the way they try to use their power (today). They don't understand the realities of politics,'' she says.
The feminist practice of handing a newly elected president a list of women from which he is expected to pick political appointments is wrongheaded, she suggests. Democratic women call Mrs. Edwards a ''queenmaker'' - she was the first person to repeatedly produce names of qualified women for appointments. But her successes were the result of quiet work, finding qualified women for a particular position. (As a loyal supporter, she had President Truman's ear, although not always his agreement, on possible appointees.)
Before her political career, she spent 27 years at the Chicago Tribune as a reporter and editor. ''I never felt any discrimination because of sex,'' she says. ''It was the kind of work I did that gained me salary and respect.''
When she and Herbert Edwards started a family, she quit work for several years. ''A good marriage comes ahead of everything, and your children come first ,'' Mrs. Edwards says. Accompanying her husband to Washington when he became a State Department officer, she found an unexpected career in politics.
Mrs. Edwards is certain her loyalty to Truman took her to the top of the Democratic Party hierarchy. As Lieutenant Governor Griffiths says, ''She was probably the only person in Washington who was connected with Truman who was certain he was going to win (the 1948 election).''
Many of her political accomplishments, she says, ''may have been because I was so new in politics that I asked for things other women wouldn't ask for, and I got them.''