The trouble with a whole lot of American women, says Sherry Manning, is their daddies.

"Fathers," she says, "raise their daughters differently than they raise their sons . . . "If we don't do well in school, we get a new car, a new dress, a new hairdo . . . "

Manning, 36, as president of Colorado Women's College in Denver, is trying to structure the school to counter the "Daddy's-little-girl" syndrome.

With a little help from a friendly psychologist and a lot of personal observations, she has concluded that Daddy's ever-so-well-meant efforts to keep "our daughters from struggling" is one of the major obstacles to sexual equality in this country.

"We don't learn to persist; we don't learn to compete; we don't learn to sweat," Manning says. "How can you learn to keep persisting if you have a daddy who keeps bailing you out" the first time anything doesn't go quite right.

"That's really hurting us -- more, probably, than discrimination or than EEOC is helping. It's that many of the males in our lives don't allow us the opportunity to scrap."

Sherry Manning, born in Washington, D.C. and raised in Howard County "where Columbia, Md., is now," has done plenty of scrapping herself.

"I was pretty traditional," she recalls. "When I grew up, a girl could be a teacher, a nurse or a secretary. I did very poorly on clerical aptitudes and I didn't like blood." That left teaching. Math teaching, in her case. She went to Western Maryland College on a state senatorial scholarship.

After working on a masters degree in mathematics at William and Mary, she lucked into a summer job at IBM. The next thing she knew she was selling computers in Baltimore, "IBM's first girl salesperson."

"I had a territory I worked and I loved it. My goal then was to be a branch manager."

Marriage intervened and she followed her husband to Denver, where she taught on the faculty of Colorado University and worked for her doctorate.

Two children, a year working in Brazil and a stint in Kansas later, she found herself running a 90-year-old college.

In town for the White House Prayer Breakfast Thursday, she was eager to talk about her philosophy, her programs and the advantages graduates of all-women colleges have over their co-educationally graduated peers.

She parades out the statistics:

85 percent of women professionals in this country attended women's colleges;

Both female governors went to women's colleges;

Both female mayors of major cities (San Francisco and Chicago) graduated from women's colleges.

Manning believes it is because women's colleges are "laboratories for leadership."

"A woman has a chance to achieve, a chance to practice . . . Across America, almost 80 percent of student body presidents are male . . . but in women's colleges, every leader is a woman. So rather than being angry and saying "Move over, baby, I'm comin' through, it's my turn,' women just naturally get used to being leaders. They don't hold back or push forward angrily. They just kind of assume leadership positions naturally."

Concerned over the father-daughter block and appalled at statistics indicating widespread sexual harrassment of women students, Manning and her colleagues approached David Erb, a Spokane, Wash., child psychologist.

He told them she says, that "it is normal and natural for a little girl to flirt with a 'safe' person."

'The whole notion of a safe person is something that women identify with immediately . . . they know their daddy is safe, their uncle is safe, their grandpa is safe, so, except where there is sickness, it is usually just a warm, loving thing.

"But what happens when a young woman identifies someone who's not related as 'safe.' Like her 8th-grade teacher. It's usually not serious, but it could be. The point is, it is the responsibility of the educator not to take advantage of what is just human nature: these little girls testing their sexuality.

"So now we have 18-year-old 'women' who are just little girls with hormones and they identify faculty members as safe people on whom they can test their sexuality as they did with their fathers . . ."

It has nothing to do with morality, she says, "but it is a very troubling thing. How do you say to a man who may be going through a lot of personal troubles in his life, 'you can't act on this because this is where this girl is and though she looks like an adult woman and she is one, by definition -- she can vote and maybe she'll be drafted -- but don't act on that because she's our charge.' So that's pretty tricky, but that's how you build a fine institution."

Manning is eager for there to be male role models at CWC, and recruiting them is one of her major projects. "Women can be mentors, but male mentors can be very very strong. So our goal is to build a male faculty which really cares about women as leaders, is not intimidated by them . . ."

During her three-year tenure at CWC, Manning has seen enrollment grow each year and, most dramatically, has instituted a weekend college program under which a woman can attend classes every other weekend for 10 months and earn her degree in four years.

Although more than half the college's 500 students are receiving some financial aid, many students are from the area's oil nobility.

Some oil fathers, said CWC secretary Don Weber, who was here with Manning, "buy condominiums for their daughters." Like the TV program "Dallas?"

"Exactly," said Manning. "Why can't that little Lucy pull her hair back, put on some glasses and prepare to take over the business? "She's got a lot more heart than J. R. and I think she's a lot brighter than that other guy, whatshisname, Bobby."

"The grandfather will die and JR will run the ranch and she'll live her life in a series of searches for a man to replace Daddy. . . ."

It is unfortunate, Manning says, because this is such a normal thing, this mutually beneficial relationship. It is troubling how we have not used it to the advantage of the daughter.

"With all good intentions, by coddling her, acting out their own relational needs, fathers don't give women a chance to be self-reliant."