Boston. -- The young woman on the Wellesley campus had just one question for Hillary Clinton -- and no, it wasn't that question. ''Why don't you run?'' the undergraduate asked the alumna as the audience broke into applause.
Hillary Clinton, class of '69, political-science major, Yale Law School graduate, has the sort of resume that you often find at the ballot box. So do many of the other wives of presidential candidates this year. The women could form an entire law firm: Clinton, Harkin and Tsongas -- with an office left over for Marilyn Quayle. Nevertheless it is still men who are running and women who are running mates. Hillary Clinton answered the question by talking about being a partner, not a president.
Why aren't any women running? After all, 1992 hasn't produced such an intimidating crop of men.
Jerry Brown hasn't held office for 10 years. Paul Tsongas left the Senate in 1984. Tom Harkin is no household name and Bob Kerrey isn't a familiar face. As for the Republicans, Pat Buchanan is hot off the ''Crossfire'' griddle. We aren't talking giants.
Yet the only woman in the entire field is Lenora Fulani -- a psychologist-politician with the fringe New Alliance Party -- whose qualifications are two previous wipeouts: one run for mayor of New York and one for governor of New York state.
''This is when we become painfully conscious of how small the overall number of women elected is,'' says Ann Lewis, Democratic political consultant. ''We don't have a lot of women senators sitting around thinking of what they want to do next.'' In fact, there are two women senators and three women governors.
The pool of women is still small, says Ms. Lewis, and the time frame is still short. ''The idea of a woman for the Oval Office is exactly one generation old.'' She dates it from 1972 when Shirley Chisholm ran for president. Since then only Pat Schroeder has given it a try.
But the answer doesn't lie only in the numbers. It's also in the psyche. It may be a matter of time. But it may also be a matter of mindset.
After all, Paul Tsongas wasn't in anybody's ''pool'' except his own. So if the former senator from Massachusetts is running why not the former governor from Vermont, Madeleine Kunin? ''It's a psychological leap women are far less likely to make,'' admits Ms. Lewis.
That leap still has to be made over a huge confidence gap. Harriet Woods, the head of the National Women's Political Caucus, is somewhat heartened by a survey the women's group did this fall. For the first time, when a male and female candidate for office were matched head to head, the public chose the woman. Ms. X beat Mr. X.
But further down the survey, Ms. Woods finds something to worry about. When the same people were asked if they thought the woman would win, they said no.
The voters have less confidence that women candidates can win. And so -- therefore? -- do the women candidates. In addition, Ms. Woods says, ''women are less likely to run if they think they can't win.''
Why isn't Pat Buchanan equally daunted at his slim prospects as a challenger? Former Governor Kunin explains wryly, ''Buchanan's father taught him to box in the basement. Politics is just another form of what life's always been for him.''
Ms. Kunin, now a senior fellow at Radcliffe's Bunting Institute, worries that women may become more, not less, alienated. ''As politics becomes more and more of a bruising game, a lot of women who aren't inclined to that kind of hostility and competitiveness are put off even further.''
''Sometimes,'' she muses, ''there is also a level of exhaustion among women. So many women today have come so far and each step has been such a struggle. When it's time to step in the ring they say, 'Hey, I've gone as far as I can go.' ''
What about going all the way? Recently, Ms. Kunin asked a New Hampshire woman what made her run for the board of aldermen. She answered, ''There was nobody I wanted to vote for.'' That doesn't make a presidential platform, but it's a common and encouraging plank.
There's a new breed of running mates in 1992. One of them may make it to the White House. But there's only one way for a woman to get to the Oval Office. She has to start running. On her own two feet.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.