At a time when many Americans are turning away from politics and millions do not even bother to vote, one group is rushing in.
At almost every level of government, women officeholders are expected to increase their numbers in the coming elections. In the congressional campaigns, 27 Democrat and 28 Republican women are running for office. The door may be opening, therefore, for increasing the number of women on Capitol Hill above the current 22, and perhaps adding one or two new women senators.
In state legislatures, where the numbers of women have increased dramatically during the last decade, more than 1,600 are running, a jump of at least 12 percent over 1980, according to the National Women's Education Fund.
Only in governorships have women lost ground. None now serve, and two nominees face uphill election battles in Vermont and Iowa.
No matter what the outcome of the Nov. 2 elections, there are increasing signs of direct participation by many women who, until now, have been mostly content to sit along the political sidelines.
Recently a group - including a nurse, a retired University of Maryland lecturer, and a federal employee from Washington - gathered at the Baltimore YWCA. They had barely any experience in politics.
For two days they delved into the how-tos of politics - from raising money and running spaghetti suppers to handling the press and reacting to an ethnic slur from an opposing candidate.
''I feel that more women need to get involved in the political process,'' Melissa Friedland, one of the participants, explains.
The course, sponsored by the National Women's Education Fund in major cities all over the country this fall, is aimed at ''demystifying'' politics, according to longtime political activist Roberta Weiner, a Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill.
''There are starting to be role models'' for women, she adds, as women begin to run for local offices and others discover, ''Oh, politics is for both sexes.''
In another sign of women moving into the political arena, the National Organization for Women (NOW) this month picked as its new president Judy Goldsmith, a longtime activist whose first concern is politics.
''I think what's occurring could legitimately be called one of the most significant developments of history, the movement toward full political participation of women,'' says the former English professor, who will take over the NOW reins when president Eleanor Smeal steps down in December.
In an interview at NOW headquarters, where she is now vice-president, Goldsmith traces the new interest in politics among women to the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment. She says that women went into state legislatures to lobby for the ERA ''with awe appropriate for such august bodies and with a conviction that if they could talk to the legislators about how just and reasonable it was, that it (the ERA) would be passed.''
These women were in for a rude awakening, according to the NOW president-elect. ''So many women found they were better informed'' than the lawmakers, she says, that they began to think, ''I can do that. I can do that better.''
Goldsmith predicts that her group will have only a slight effect in the Nov. 2 elections, because it was preoccupied with the ERA until recently. But NOW is already laying the groundwork for 1984.
''We'll concentrate on recruitment of candidates,'' she says. ''For far too long we have had to put up with the lesser of two evils. We want to have candidates that we can feel good about and support.''
That does not mean always supporting women candidates, however. NOW is favoring men over women in a handful of races this year, and in the New Jersey race for US Senate, the local NOW chapter has endorsed Democrat Frank Lautenberg over Republican Millicent Fenwick.