Somewhere along the line it became a verb: networking. Which is to say linking up to use each other the way big boys always have to get ahead.

Last night nearly 300 of the 1,200-member-strong Washington Women's Network tried "networking" at 14 small dinner parties around town, where featured speakers discussed everything from money and disarmament to equal opportunity and the media.

"It's a very good way of conducting business," said Judith Lichtman, executive director of the Women's Legal Defense Fund and one of the evening's hostesses. "Men have been doing it for years because access pays off.

"There have always been the specialized networks -- we're all interested in specific issues. But this network doesn't have a specific issue," said Lichtman. "And in a relaxed, social, informal way a lot can be done."

Lichtman co-arranged the dinner with Marjorie Fine Knowles, inspector general at the Department of Labor, for 35 women from the federal and private sectors interested in equal opportunity enforcement. They came specifically to hear Eleanor Holmes Norton, chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

And although Norton said she is not a member of the network, "in a real sense I'm in the network every day. My agency is so central to the concerns of women that it's hard to avoid me."

She said she sees mounting prestige in network affiliation because more and more women holding sub-Cabinet and supergrade positions are in the real power posts of government.

"In a complicated society of many levels, these women are making the decisions. Everybody thinks a Cabinet post is power but I'm saying that if the decisions haven't been made by the time they reach the top, then bureaucracy has failed."

A few blocks away Susan Hager, partner in the public relations and program development firm of Hager, Sharp & Abramson Inc., welcomed 22 women into her home while her husband, Eric, a Department of Energy attorney, got their dinner.

"One of the best cooks in town," Susan Hager assured them. She introduced Julia M. Walsh, head of the investment firm Julia M. Walsh & Sons Inc.

There to tell everyone everything they ever wanted to know about making their money work for them, Walsh said women too often neglect that aspect of advancing themselves.

"It's not high priority for women to deal with such things as tax shelters through oil and gas, subsidized government housing and normal investments," she said.

Ann Milne of Frederick, Md., said she plans a mid-life career switch and wanted Walsh's advice on how to go about financing a winery, in which she will use the grapes from her five-year-old vineyard.

"I need to talk to this woman," said Nora Squyres, who's with the FDIC."My five-year plan is to grow grapes in Virginia and run for the Virginia legislature."

Which just went to show everybody what the power of network suggestion could do. Milne decided that maybe Frederick needed a woman legislator, too. c

Elsewhere, Mary King, deputy director of ACTION, entertained by candlelight for 20 or so other networkers there to hear Marjorie Craig Benton in a wide-ranging discussion of politics, SALT, UNICEF and Save the Children Community Development Foundation.