Did you hear the one about the traveling saleswoman and the farmer's son? Have you seen Arthur Miller's play "Death of a Saleswoman" - you know, the one about Wilhelmina Loman? Look out, honey, here comes that insurance saleswoman again.

All the above may still strike most Americans as bizarre. High-pressure selling remains to many the quintessentially male profession, and statistically it still is. But, as one gender stereotype after another bites the cosmetic dust, the 1980s has become the decade of the emerging American saleswoman.Women, of course, have long been visible in lower-paid sales jobs: retrieving merchandise in department stores and boutiques, staging tea parties in their homes to sell Tupperware or vending Avon products door to door.

What's new is that women are now pounding on - and opening - previously closed doors to top corporate sales jobs with six-figure incomes. Since 1981 alone, the proportion of women in sales has nearly tripled, from 7 percent to 18 percent, and executives report that this includes an unusually high percentage of the leading performers in their fields.

Examples of the new breed of hard-driving saleswoman abound.

Terry Casey, a divorced mother of two with no college or work experience, became the No. 1 seller of multimillion-dollar phone systems for New York's AIM Telephones by the time she was 40. Robin Milne sells computer hardware in 17 Western states for Atlanta's HBO & Co., logging 15,000 miles a month in air travel and earning more than $100,000 a year.

At Prudential, whose 22,000 agents include only 2,800 women, women won all three major sales awards last year. Best of the bunch was Estrella Linch, of Valley View, Calif., who became Prudential's top district agent by selling $73 million in insurance and generating $1.75 million in annualized new business premiums.

Prudential's $73 million woman typifies the combination of energy and caring that the most effective of the new breed exemplify. As she put it to me, "I'm excited and feel alive when I sell insurance. I have hundreds and hundreds of clients, and I am interested in all of them. I think of my clients as family, and I let them know I'll be there whenever they need me."

Such women often find that the gender cliches can be turned in their favor. Being female in a top sales job is still enough of a curiosity to help them get in the door, and the traditional notion of greater female sensitivity can be an effective tool in closing the deal and nurturing a long-term business relationship. In the end, though, successful saleswomen are indistinguishable professionally from successful salesmen: They know their customers, they know their products and they use their heads. They've just had to show a little more ingenuity to get their jobs.

Not that all the bastions of aggressive male chauvinism are crumbling. A recent survey by PCA Sales Management Group couldn't find a single saleswoman in the general machinery or aerospace industries (where, ironically, Rosie the Riveter proved her employment worth back in World War II). The survey found a mere 3 percent or less in fabricated metal products, tools and hardware, automotive parts or even transportation equipment, such as the rail carriages, subway cars and buses that carry a substantial part of the female population every day.

But the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that women sellers have become easy to find in real estate (more than 48 percent), advertising and related sales (nearly 48 percent) and securities and financial (nearly 38 percent), a field that a mere 15 years ago was still so male-dominated that a woman broker was, almost by definition, an outstanding broker.

Top-level, on-the-road selling remains a tough choice for women who want to combine work with something resembling a normal family life. (The same, alas, is true for men.) But Barton A. Wentz, a University of Florida marketing expert and author, estimates that 6 million American women have now joined the nation's sales force in some capacity. What makes the successful ones tick? Joseph J. Melone, Prudential's president, says they tend to be "highly motivated and detail-oriented," with "flexibility, creativity and outgoing personality." In other words, exactly what you might say about a successful man in selling.

Willy Loman, you wouldn't know the territory.