What does the presence of a woman on a presidential ticket mean in the daily lives of other American women? More and more women, in politics and out, are recognizing the danger of reading Geraldine Ferraro as a signal of progress for all. She is seen as a heartening symbol. But the record shows that a few women at the top do not necessarily make a huge difference for women in the middle or at the bottom.
Sandra Day O'Connor's appointment to the Supreme Court represented a breakthrough for women in the judiciary. Yet only eight of Ronald Reagan's first 116 federal judgeship nominations have been women.
According to a study by Catalyst, a nonprofit organization, women account for only 3 percent of the 14,000 directorships in Fortune 1000 companies. This despite large numbers of female MBAs clustered in middle management.
And although women account for 30 percent of associates in the nation's 100 largest law firms, they constitute only 5 percent of partners.
In politics the drop from vice-presidential candidate to the thin middle ranks is equally steep.
When Congresswoman Barbara B. Kennelly (D) of Connecticut addressed the National Organization for Women in Miami Beach recently, she ended her talk on an impassioned note. ''The Congress of the United States is a marvelous place to serve,'' she said, ''but it's very, very lonely with only 22 women. There's got to be more of us.''
On paper the number of female candidates is encouraging, although many face daunting odds in races against well-funded incumbent men. According to the National Women's Education Fund, seven women have been nominated for Senate seats - four more than in 1982. Forty-one have been nominated for the House - 13 more than in 1982.
The Catch-22 for women candidates is that they have trouble raising money because they aren't taken seriously, and they aren't taken seriously because they can't raise money.
Jane Wells-Schooley, a Democratic candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania, estimates she will need up to half a million dollars to compete effectively against Congressman Don Ritter.
Mrs. Wells-Schooley frequently finds people more interested in her appearance than her politics. ''People will say, 'Gee, you're prettier than your picture,' or 'Gee, you're a lot taller than your picture,' '' she says with a laugh, drawing herself up to her full 5-foot, 11-inch height. But then her voice turns serious as she adds, ''The number of times issues come up is discouragingly low.''
For Edythe C. Harrison, a Democrat now seeking the US Senate seat in Virginia held by John W. Warner (R), a minor insult occurred when a local newspaper called her ''the party nominette.'' That is the least of her problems. Campaign finance reports filed recently with the federal government show that Senator Warner has raised $1.6 million for his reelection campaign - more than seven times the $220,000 Ms. Harrison has raised.
There are success stories, of course. When Gloria Molina, the first Chicano elected to the California Assembly, announced her candidacy for the 1982 race, party regulars tried to dissuade her. But she persisted, ultimately raising $225 ,000 for her campaign, 80 percent from women.
''Money is absolutely essential,'' Ms. Molina says, stating a sad but proven political truth about the costly campaigns of ''paid political announcements'' in the TV age.
The money problem for women candidates starts at the grass roots. Earning 62 cents for every dollar earned by men, women have less money to contribute to candidates, female or male.
Maureen Reagan, a part-time adviser to her father on women's issues, has observed that women tend to give political candidates only about 10 percent of what men give. At the same time, she notes, men give women candidates only 10 percent of what they give to men.
Still, there is another asset for women candidates, as good as money in the bank. As many as 8 million more women than men may vote in November.
All this leads to a couple of big ifs.
If enough of the 31 million unregistered women do register and vote. ...
If enough women candidates in the middle and lower levels of office, down to town council, get elected ...
Then women may begin to gain on a broad level their share in the governing process. And that could make a difference, for women everywhere.
''Only our own apathy can defeat us,'' says Judy Goldsmith, president of NOW.
It is a cautionary note that is perhaps best summed up on NOW T-shirts and bumper stickers: ''It's a man's world - unless women vote. Are you registered?''