''The age of enlightenment has finally dawned on Rhode Island.'' The pronouncement comes from US Rep. Claudine Schneider (R) of Rhode Island, who says she is ''delighted'' that women are five of eight Republican candidates expected to run for top posts in the state's November election.
To have several women challenging the old-boy, Democrat-dominated political machine in the nation's smallest state is unprecedented, according to the National Federation of Republican Women in Washington. The makeup of such a Republican ticket is especially striking given the national criticism leveled at the Reagan administration for its perceived insensitivity to women's issues.
But Mrs. Schneider points out that the Republican Party in Rhode Island is ''the antithesis of the party on the national level.'' She adds that in her state ''so many women have made a concerted effort. I think Rhode Island should be a model for the nation.''
Representative Schneider says her message to women's groups is, ''If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.'' She urges women to get out and take part in politics. ''It's not all smoke-filled rooms full of wheeling and dealing,'' she says. ''I tell them, 'If I've done it, you can do it.' And they should.
''Frankly, we (as a nation) have a tendency to look at the Republican Party as Ronald Reagan's party,'' she cautions. ''But the majority of Republicans do not see eye-to-eye with him on women, the environment, and many other issues. The President has created this ambiance because of some of his moves. The party itself is different, and many women are involved at different levels.''
The five Republican women slated to run include Mrs. Schneider, now in her second term representing the state's Second District; Secretary of State Susan Farmer; state Senate minority leader Lila Sapinsley; Sister Arlene Violet, a likely candidate for state attorney general; and Barbara Leonard, a businesswoman running for the first time against a 24-year veteran of the US Senate, Democrat Claiborne Pell.
In a state with such a long Democratic tradition and a history of Republican failures at the polls, the Republicans are enthusiastic about their prospects for the next ro nd. Republican Party state chairman John Holmes is quick to point out, however, that the five women candidates were chosen because they are the most qualified, not because they are women.
In Rhode Island, fewer than one in every five voters are registered Republicans. ''The success rate of the Republican Party in Rhode Island has been very poor,'' Mr. Holmes says. ''My job as state party chairman is to get the best possible person to run against a strong Democratic candidate - and Barbara Leonard is a strong candidate to run against (Sen.) Claiborne Pell.
''The fact she is a woman has nothing to do with asking her to run for office. Quality has no quota.'' He adds, ''I believe in their strength as individuals.''
Mrs. Leonard is ''very excited about the ticket in Rhode Island. I am a woman , I enjoy being a woman, but I won't represent women (exclusively). I will represent all people, men and women. Women's issues are important, but there are other very important issues too.''
Secretary of State Farmer, the first woman to hold a high state office in Rhode Island, says ''the Republican Party in Rhode Island is substantially more liberal than the national party.'' This, along with ''total one-party domination for years,'' made it difficult for her, as a Republican and a woman, to break into state politics.
''Many people have ideas about where women should be and what they should be doing,'' she says. But that seems to be fading, even though ''you still get a lot of comments. Some say 'Oh, no, now we're going to have to paint the State House pink!' ''
Although the Democrats have begun to run women candidates against Republican women, no Democratic women hold high positions. John J. Slocum Jr. (R), twice a candidate for Congress and a former official on the Republican state committee, suggests there is ''just a lot of opportunity in the (Republican) party for women interested in politics, starting at the local level. There hasn't been that kind of opportunity in the Democratic Party, where it's hard to get into high positions without working your way up through the ranks over a long period of time.''