For years, June Chewning says, she saw women in government energy agencies not getting promoted, men getting ahead of more qualified or equally qualified women, women getting to the GS-13 grade level and progressing no further. It bothered her, she says, but she did not do anything about it.

"It's easier to take that when you have supportive bosses. I've been very fortunate. I've had male bosses who've been very supportive throughout my career. Except that one." That one, she says, "was the final straw," the one that broke her pattern of tolerance toward the discrimination against women she saw in the department.

Chewning is an internationally recognized specialist in analyzing the manpower needs of nuclear industries. In 1974, she was assigned to work for a man who "belittled my work and accomplishments." who would not give her a job description and then tried to give her a negative personnel evaluation. She saw her career threatened. "That's when I decided to take action."

The action she took led to the landmark admission lask week by the Justice Department that the energy agency discriminated against women in hiring and promotions. The government's admission of liability will probably result in the largest damage payment so far in a sex discrimination suit involving a government agency. Justice has set up a process under which 255 women who joined the class action suit, and possibly an additional 100 who did not, could collect millions in damages, according to lawyers involved in the case.

"The money is a symbol," says Chewning, who is still a GS-13 and says she does not know how much money she will collect.

"The money is important to people and I want the settlement to be as big as possible because this is what people understand. But you can't measure the damage to women's personalities, to their sense of self-worth. You can't measure that. The money is just a tiny way of measuring discrimination."

Chewning is a short, friendly woman with brown hair, brown eyes, and a low-key manner. She is married to a retired federal employe and her two children are in college. She speaks of her own case in a rather detached way, stopping at one point to pull out three slides.

"This is where I'm coming from," she says, picking up a slide. "This is a picture of my grandmother." Another slide: 'This is a picture of my grandmother marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in her white dress in 1914." The third slide: 'This is a picture of her working in her office in the Census Beareau in 1905. She came to Washington in 1898 to work on the census of 1900.

"My mother started working as a postmaster of this small town in 1920. She worked as a federal employe until she retired in the late 1950s. So when I started to work I just assumed women worked and women kept house. It wasn't women's lib. It was a feeling that women led very productive lives.

"When I started out, I went up very quickly. When I started encountering disparate treatment I found very few women who thought there was anything wrong. I went through a period of self-examination. Was I the one off base? It was only a short period."

Chewning, 52, has worked for the government for more than 20 years, in the Library of Congress, Navy Department, Defense Intelligence Agency and then the Atomic Energy Commission, an energy department predecessor.

"Most of my work life at the agency has been very pleasant. From the '60s through the early '70s, women expected as common practice to work at a lower level than men doing the same thing. That has been government practice in all the different agencies I've worked in."

She and Nan M. Nrown, who was the Federal Women's Program coordinator for the Energy Research and Development Administration from 1974 to 1976, believe that agency was more discriminatory toward women than most. Documents filed with the court last week by the Justice Department rank the energy department eighth among 12 cabinet-level agencies in its over-all use of women.

"Women knew they were treated dirrerently," says Nan Brown. "The men would get to the top-level jobs and the women just didn't get there. The whole department was like one big buddy system."

"I think its because it's an agency that grew out of the Manhattan Project," Chewning says, "which was a military, highly technical operation, clothed in secrecy, and at the time it was developed back in World War II there were very few women in these technical occupations. But it's ironic: Madame Curie started it all."

Sex discrimination accounts for about 22 percent of the equal employment opportunity complaints filed against the federal government, according to Diane Graham, director of the office of federal equal employment opportunity. More than 1,600 complaints of discrimination were filed by women against the government from July 1975 to Sept. 30, 1976, she said.

Richard Seymour, director of the Government Employment Project for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, predicts there will be further suits such as Chewning's in other agencies.

"My perception after working a year and a half in this area is that the Chewning-type situation is common throughout many federal agencies. That what masquerades as a merit system is just an organized exercise of subjective discretion. People who are making the decisions are white males. They prefer white males. As time goes on we will see many more judicial determinations coming out like Chewning, where the government simply cannot defend the results of its system."

"I spoke at Bryn Mawr recently," says June Chewning, "and rather woman looked at me and said, 'you know I look at the faces of these young women and they think we've won the battle for them.' How shocked they are going to be. We haven't won the battle for them any more than our foremothers did for us when they won the vote and we sat back all these years and let the idea of women's work and men's work develop.

"The median grade for women will creep up to a GS-14," she said, "but by then it will be a 15 for men."