And the Winner, by a Head . . .

The last rays of sun beat down on the skittish competitors. They pranced, they preened, they practically whinnied. Samantha Corrigan was the favorite starting out, but the crowd's attention turned when Marnell Bruce made her way to the front of the pack.

The Preakness? Not quite. It was the Woodrow Wilson House's 16th Annual Garden Party (and unofficial hat contest) Wednesday evening at presidential museum. Don't let the quaint stereotype fool you. "It's very competitive," said museum Director Frank Aucella. "Not to be sexist, but you know ladies."

Ineligible to compete, the party's chairwomen busied themselves at the door keeping tabs on the 300 incoming guests like oddsmakers at the track. "Oh, my goodness! It looks like a garden arrived!" exclaimed co-chairwoman Sharon Leininger Nemeroff at the sight of Bruce's wide-brimmed straw hat abloom with vibrant flora and faux bumblebees. "I knocked myself out, and I'm planning to win," said a determined Bruce, who, in fact, won the "Breath of Spring" category.

Even the gentlemen's competition seemed ridden with female ambition. "It's for my husband, but he doesn't know it yet," confided Corrigan as she held a khaki safari cap covered in real dead cicadas and cicada shells (yuck!) -- a buggy confection that fetched "His Best" honors for her husband, James. Corrigan herself won "Hat That Created the Greatest Buzz" for her grass-covered creation topped with fake butterflies suspended from pipe cleaners.

Although fundraising was the event's raison d'etre ($30,000 this year), everyone was clearly infected by the hat bug. Sarah Cannova, co-owner of Georgetown's Sassanova shoe boutique, sported an electric blue and flamingo pink feather topper. "It's all for the love -- the sport -- of hats."

Playing With the Big Girls

Forget "Mean Girls." Think "Smart Girls." More than 450 of Washington's alpha females gathered Thursday to remind themselves that brains always trump bust lines in the long run.

The luncheon at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, hosted by co-chairwomen BET President Debra Lee and Howard professor emerita Roselyn Payne Epps, celebrated the new Washington chapter of Girls Inc. The former Girls Clubs organization has a 21st-century name and a broad mission: to inspire young women (especially from low-income families) to be strong, smart and bold. And along the way, happy, succesful and comfortable in their skin.

It seems to be working. Girls Inc., said 17-year-old national scholar Jennifer Nichols, helped her "stand up to a culture that needs a makeover more than any girl or woman I know" -- a line greeted with appreciative hoots and applause from the crowd.

The luncheon honored Sen. Mary Landrieu, Rep. Shelly Moore Capito, General Motors Foundation veep Debbie Dingell and Crowell & Moring lawyer Karen Hastie Williams. "It's women helping women," said Dingell. "Celebrating both the strength of girl power when we're together, and reaching the next generation."

Nonpareils in the Struggle for Equality

There were dozens of events last week marking the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. Thursday night's Hubert H. Humphrey Civil Rights Awards Dinner at the Washington Hilton was a celebration and reaffirmation wrapped into one.

"That decision dismantled the concept of segregation in our life," said civil rights legend Dorothy Height. "There are backward steps that have been made, and a distance yet to go."

But the 950 guests felt that distance grow shorter as radio host Tom Joyner, workers' rights leader Gerald McEntee and Qualcomm Inc. founder Irwin Jacobs were honored for advancing the causes of civil rights, economic justice and education reform. The evening raised $750,000 for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

With Laura Thomas