Not very long ago, few women headed retail companies other than those they had started themselves.

"Before 1970 there were only three women presidents -- Mildred Custin of Bonwit Teller, Dorothy Shaver at Lord & Taylor and Geraldine Stutz at Henri Bendel," says Helen Galland, who in 1980 was president of Bonwit's.

All that has changed so dramatically that tonight Galland is chair of a dinner dance at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York honoring nine heads of stores, all women, including Hanne Merriman, president of Garfinckel's; Sally Frame, president of the New York-based chain Ann Taylor; and Gloria Johnson, president of the Baltimore department store chain Hutzler's. Sponsor of the dinner is The Fashion Group, the international nonprofit organization of professional women in the fashion field.

Said Merriman: "I'm very honored, but I think that down the line we have to stop looking at things as women's or men's accomplishments, and rather look at the merit of the individual . . . I feel I would rather be honored by merit and achievement, not because of gender."

Other women retail bosses to be honored are Pamela Grant (Goldwaters), Judith Hofer (The May Company), Dawn Mello (Bergdorf-Goodman), Eve Rich (Contempo Casuals), Geraldine Stutz (Henri Bendel) and Cheryl Nido Turpin (Weinstock's.)