WHEN a tiny 98-year-old Floridian, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, was honored by Ms. magazine last week as one of its six ``women of the year,'' the 250 guests attending the ceremony in New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel responded with suitably rousing applause. For 60 years Mrs. Douglas has waged a one-woman campaign to protect the Everglades, making her perhaps the nation's oldest activist. With the exception of one guest celebrity, Oprah Winfrey, the Ms. honor roll is, in fact, a carefully orchestrated salute to activists - hardworking, often unheralded women. In addition to Douglas, the women (and their issues) include Alice Harris, founder of a Los Angeles-based group, Parents of Watts; Actress Anne Archer, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood; Yolanda Serrano, head of a drug abuse prevention and treatment program in New York; and Sarah Brady, wife of former press secretary James Brady and a strong opponent of the gun lobby.
Clearly, public recognition of women's achievements has come a long way since the time, not so many years ago, when honors for women were largely limited to Mother of the Year or Teacher of the Month.
Still, there is a sense that while men have been pinning medals on their competitive chests ever since our cavemen first beat their cavemen, men - and women - have not quite known what to honor women for. A 1987 study reported in Psychology Today found that ``People generally have had a harder time thinking of women they admire than men. Overall more people answer `none' or `don't know' when asked to name a woman than a man.''
Only twice in the 61-year history of Time's Man of the Year award, for instance, has an individual woman received the honor: Queen Elizabeth in 1952 and Corazon Aquino in 1986.
As if acknowledging the problem, without quite solving it, women's groups and corporations are creating new awards to recognize women's achievements. But achievements for what? The proliferation of awards can confuse rather than clarify.
Men tend to be honored for power. Something different - something more or perhaps something less - seems to characterize the achievements of women, which may be why Mother Theresa keeps making Good Housekeeping's most-admired lists, along with power figures like Nancy Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
Marcia Gillespie, executive editor of Ms., says, ``We can't celebrate women enough, because the work that we do, the ongoing sense of struggle that we participate in, is often taken for granted in the world.''
All too true. But in a post-feminist world, the celebrating gets a little complicated. When women in the '60s and '70s had a one-track mind - the fast-track, that is - awards were a comparatively simple matter. Now that women in the '80s are at least partially reaffirming the home and family values of their mothers, the role models are getting blurred, and this is what late-'80s awards signal.
The Ms. honor list suggests that the achievements of women should somehow be nurturing, otherwise the power of achievement is nothing. To make the earth green rather than to conquer it - this is something that Marjory Stoneman Douglas has probably known for the better part of a century. It can pass as news for the rest of us.