Mary Beth Cox wanted flexible working hours. Gilda Bailey liked being her own boss. Diane Manley wanted to use all her skills, Patty Abramson liked "the growth potential" and Carolyn Furlong needed to earn more money.

Each of these women chose the same route to success -- starting her own business. They are among the growing ranks of female entrepreneurs who have discovered that "minding their own business" allows them total control of their business lives, plus increased flexibility to meet the demands of home and family.

"Whether it's a desire to do things your own way, get rich quick -- or at least faster -- earn greater recognition, or win in the business world, more and more women are choosing to work for themselves," write Joyce Gabriel and Bettye Baldwin in "Having it all."

This friend is likely to continue in the '80s says Rona Feit, executive director of the Interagency Committee on Women's Business Enterprise, which is under presidential order to oversee implementation of a national women's business enterprises policy.

"We're seeing more women joining the work force in non-traditional areas like business-owning," says Feit. "Small Business Association data shows a tripling of loans to women in the last few years and a tripling in the number of women attending counseling and classes."

More than 400,000 women owned their own businesses in 1971 and officials say that figure may double when the Census Bureau releases a new report on women-owned businesses at the end of the month.

"Women represented 16 percent of the delegates at the (January) White House Conference on Small Business," notes Mary K. Young, the conference's research specialist on women in business.

"Part of the attraction may be in response to the problems women encounter in traditional jobs -- employment discrimination, sexual harassment. Sometimes it may seem easier to strike out on your own."

To better equip themselves for the business world, record numbers of women are attending business schools, according to the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business. Women earned 23 percent of the graduate degrees and 15 percent of the doctorates in 1979, compared to 4 percent of the master's degrees and 2 percent of doctorates in 1972.

Some of these women hope for prestige, power and big bucks. Others want the modest success of meaningful, enjoyable work. Regardless of their aspirations, they seem intent on claiming their piece of the American Dream.

"I'd always wanted to work in a nonstructured environment, combining the things I liked best about business and teaching," recalls Diane Manley, a divorced reading teacher with two daughters. "When my 40th birthday approached I decided it was now or never."

As soon as her daughters left home for college and work, Manley quit teaching, gathered on initial investment of $5,000 and opened Diane Manley Associates voting consultants and business support services.

To keep her overhead low, she lived in the back of two-room Alexandria office -- cooking on a rummage-sale hot plate and cleaning with a portable dishwasher. By reminding herself to "act as though you cannot fail," and by working 70-hour weeks, she pulled into the black within a year.

"I love it," says Manley, who now lives in "a real apartment" and has two employes and several dozen on-call staffers. "It's one of the best moves I ever made."

"Flexibility is a major advantages for women business owners with children.

"I really had the desire to work, but I wasn't willing to make the sacrifices a traditional 8-to-5 job demands," says Mary Beth Cox, who opened "The Ship's Hatch" in Fairfax 18 months ago. "With my own shop I can contour my hours around my children.

"They are home from school early on Monday so I'm closed Monday. I'm open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. by appointment. Plus I have the freedom to make my own decisions. In what other kind of work could I have all that?"

Business ownership also earns some women higher pay than salaried employment.

"After my divorce I had to raise four children by myself," says Carolyn Furlong, who had learned the insurance business by serving as "the girl in the office" of an insurance company and now serves as president of the National Association of Insurance Women.

"There is more money in selling so I opened my own agency. It was very scary starting out because 18 years ago there weren't many women agents. But I make about three times what I would have if I'd stayed.

For some women, however, self-employment means lower pay.

"We pay ourselves much less than we could earned in a comparable job," says Patty Abramson, one of three women owners of Hager, Sharp and Abramson program development and public relations firm.

"We don't take corporate perks like luncheon out and parking. But it's worth it to be able to mold a business and watch it grow. And if your kid has an ear infection you can take off two hours in the middle of the day. Of course I work at night at home almost always and put in 60 hours in an average week. But I love it."

The biggest problem for prospective women business owners is "lack of financial and management training says Sally Bender, director of the SBA's Office of Women-in-Business. (More than half of all small businesses fail within the first five years of operation.)

"But there's all kinds of help available (see box). Take classes, talk to business people, do your homework."

Small business professionals offer this advice.

Work in a busines similar to the one you'd like to start. Get a job or volunteer in a book store, day/care center or whatever you plan to run, to see if you like it and to get a feel for the routine.

Develop a business plan, says Bernard Fisken, a specialist in financial management of small business. Include the objective of your business, how it will be structured and financed, plus details about your product and customers. Ask business owners to critique it.

Don't quit your job right away. If possible, work nights and weekends to build up a clientele.

Join a network of business owners. Find people in finance, personnel, marketing and "pick their brains," says Patty Abramson.

Consuit a lawyer, says Russell Stevenson, director of GW's Small Business Clinic. Don't wait until trouble arises.

Don't give up," says Anne Haulsee, president of the Capital chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners." As a rule of thumb, don't expect to be making money for the first three years. Too often people give up right before they really would have made it."