NEW YORK — New York.--When women activists first learned that Geraldine Ferraro and Elizabeth Holtzman were going to run for the Senate, they shared a prolonged, collective groan. This was the year to energize the women's vote, not to split it.
Here were two strong women, both identified with the women's movement, both former members of Congress. And both eager to win the Democratic nomination for the Senate race against Republican Al D'Amato.
But these supporters looked deep into the feminist handbook, and read the rule that says: Thou Shalt Not Prohibit Two Women From Running Against Each Other. They came up with the politically correct description of this situation to recite in public. They repeatedly called the candidacy of the two women ''an embarrassment of riches.''
Now, an embarrassment of riches has turned into a plain old embarrassment. In the final days of this four-way primary, the fight turned personal, nasty, negative to the hilt.
Much of the sludge was hurled by Ms. Holtzman at Ms. Ferraro, who watched her lead wither under attacks on her family and character. The debates turned into an ugly free-for-all that had a moderator pleading, ''Ladies, ladies.'' And the winner who emerged Tuesday was the least-sullied: Attorney General Robert Abrams.
This was not the way it is supposed to be. The Year-of-the-Woman script after all identifies women with change. The Year-of-the-Woman success story is supposed to read like Patty Murray's Tuesday victory. This ''mom in tennis shoes'' won the Democratic primary for the Senate in Washington state on the new theorem: I am a woman, therefore an outsider, therefore a different breed of politician.
It's pretty clear that the voters of 1992 are attracted to women candidates when, and because, they offer something fresh. It's clear from the New York primary that women may suffer, lose the patina of ''difference,'' when they take the low road or when they are taken down that road.
But the question for the rest of this political season is not just whether women will win, but how they will run. Can most of them hold to a different campaign or will they inevitably -- by the inexorable laws of political gravity -- get as down and dirty and disappointing as the New York primary. It's a question that will have a special resonance as the Senate campaigns in states like Illinois and Pennsylvania get tighter and tougher.
In some ways, this is a political variation on a theme that has tracked women as they moved up in every field. On the one hand, many of us believe that women should have a fair shot at the corner office or the Oval Office on the simple grounds of fairness and equity. We say they should be judged the same as men. No special virtue required.
On the other hand, we also promote women on the grounds that they are different. We promise they will bring another set of life experiences and priorities to governing. We promote change . . . for the better.
Our expectations, then, for women candidates are enormous. We expect them to succeed in the one existing system, and we expect them to change that system.
Ellen Malcolm of EMILY's List, which supported Ms. Ferraro, says that ''The real dilemma a woman candidate faces is that we want someone who is not politics-as-usual and we want women candidates who can participate effectively.''
She confesses to hating negative campaigns, but adds, ''Sometimes to be effective a woman has to go negative. There is no doubt in my mind that a woman has to be able to defend herself. Those are the hard realities of politics.''
A case in point is Ann Richards who has made a significant difference for women as a governor of Texas. But only after ''fighting like a man'' to win. A Texas man.
Nevertheless, it's important for women candidates who regard themselves as part of a movement for change, to establish a higher standard of campaigning. To be held to it and to hold men to it.
This may add another women's burden to the political quest. But unless we raise such a standard, women could become partners in a political system that's in full, cynical, collapse.
''We have an obligation to our daughters,'' says Ruth Mandel of the Center for the American Woman and Politics, to gain political power ''because what exists isn't fair. But we also want to do it differently so that when they come along they'll not only find it easier, they'll find it better.''
In the last days, the New York primary was not, to put it mildly, better. It was politics as usual and the voters ended up disgusted as usual.
There's blame to go around, but the sorriest footnote belongs to Ms. Holtzman. This year, many women have claimed that they're running for something higher than office. But when Ms. Holtzman decided to launch a highly personal and often unfair attack against Ms. Ferraro, she lost more than an election. She exchanged her credentials as a change agent for those of a spoiler.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.