The handful of blacks and women in the Virginia General Assembly say they are just beginning to function as a political force in this, the oldest lawmaking body in the Western Hemisphere.

But their progress has been exceedingly slow, more so when compared with impressive gains in neighboring Maryland.

In Virginia, State Sen. L. Douglas Wilder, the state's first black legislator since Reconstruction, says that somethimes the progress can be measured by a song -- or the absence of it.

When Wilder, a Richmond Democrat, arrived in the Senate in 1970 he was astonished to hear "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" sung at a legislative function.

Unaware it was the official state song and furious at what felt was its racist lyrics and spirit -- "the old slave wants to go to heaven and join the old master to live in perpetual slavery," Wilder said -- he denounced the song from the Senate floor. Wilder "got hell" for that.

"I had touched a nerve no one knew was there," Wilder recalls now. The outcry eventually subsided, and the state song remained the state song.

"But," said a grinning Wilder, who is now 12th in seniority in the 40-member Senate and chairfs a major committee, "they never sing it anymore."

Indeed times change, even in Virginia. It has been nearly 10 years since the song incident and Wilder is still the only black in the Senate. But he now shares the virginia legislature with four blacks, all men, who serve in the 100-member House.

For the nine women legislators, all House members, there also has been a noticeable change in their reception over the years.

When Arlington del. Mary A. Marshall was elected in 1966 reporters from women's pages were the ones who called. And they "asked about my recipes and how my husband managed when I was away," said Marshall, who joined two other women already serving in the House.

"I asked if I could talk about legislation, they'd sure like to write about that, they's sure like to write about that for a change," said Marshall, who now serves on some of the more important committees and is secretary of the 77-member Democratic House caucus.

"It sounds exactly like what a woman would be, I know, but I'm the first woman to ever have the job," said Marshall, who assumed the post last year.

Despite her caucus position, however, Marshall concedes she is largely excluded from any leadership role. A recent fund-raising project for the party "was never discussed with me. But I'm not offended -- they just missed out on some terrific ideas on ways to raise money."

Compared to the Maryland legislature -- where 28 women and 19 blacks serve in the 188-member assembly -- Virginia's black and women lawmakers might feel shortchanged. Some do, and some do not, but all would like to see their numbers and influence increase so they could have more clout on issues that concern their specialized constituencies.

The women, who are split about evenly on the issue of the Equal Rights Amendment, have united on a comprehensive divorce bill they are pushing this year. Individual women have sponsored legislation to provide for prenuptial contracts and the resumption of the maiden name after divorce, and other women's concerns.

Blacks only recently have organized as a group but indicidually have sought measures on behalf of Medicaid abortions, food stamp programs and the commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.

"We're really treated very well," said Del. Dorothy McDiarmid (D-Fairfax), who came to the Virginia legislature in 1960 and is the most senior woman delegate.

Her attitude and experiences differ markedly from those of Rosalie Abrams, a Baltimore Democrat who was elected to the Maryland House in 1967, moved on to the Senate four years later and this year become majority leader for the 44 men and three women in that chamber.

Abrams said, "It's been a struggle" for women to gain legislative power. But the struggle appears to have registered dramatic gains in Annapolis. Several women legislators there are acknowledged experts in education, corrections and health. A Montgomery County woman has just become chairman of a House committee and half of the state's congressional delegation is female.

"It's more gracious and easy here," countered Marshall of Virginia's treatment of women legislators. Still, Marshall added, "it took a lot longer than it should have" before a woman, namely herself, was named to the prestigious Privileges and Elections Committee.

Del. Elise B. Heinz (D-Arlington) says it took so long because "the one or two women who were here before certainly weren't going around making themselves conspicuous.They probably had trouble being taken seriously at all. We're just getting to the point now where there are too many of us to ignore."

Heinz, a freshman completing her second legislative session, said the women have to work extra hard to overcome what she sees as largely subtle discrimination.

"A man who comes down here as a new member starts even, but a new woman member is considered a light-weight until she proves herself," Heinz said.

"Most of these people are very nice to us," she said. "They are very nice to each other. There's a very high level of civility in this body... but.... "

Leaving the sentence uncompleted, Heinz a Harvard Law School graduate, recounte an incident that occurred on the House floor last week, terming it "the single most impressive thing that has happened" for the women lawmakers.

It was, she said, the reception accorded Del. Mary Sue Terry (D-Parrick), another lawyer, when she took the floor and forcefully (and successfully) urged passage of a divorce law proposal sponsored by all nine women House members.

"They listened," said Heinz, referring to the male legislators. "They didn't wander and they didn't fuss and poke at each other. They listened."

Heinz and Terry are the only lawyers among the nine House women, a situation that makes the rest of the women's caucus "feel a little more secure now," according to Del. Gladys Keating (D-Fairfax). "The women here are a disparate crew," Keating said. "Philosophically we run the gamut from ultra, ultra conservative to ultra, ultra liberal."

As such, the women are split sharply on the issue of the Equal Rights Amendment -- which has yet to pass the Virginia Assembly in seven tries. But the women did unite on the divorce bill, Keating said, and diverted a portion of each's expense money to hire a legal consultant to help research and draft the legislation.

With just five blacks in th assembly, attempts at caucusing as the women have done might seem like a lonely proposition.

But it has been lonelier, said Del. William P. Robinson Sr. (D-Norfolk).

"I was elected in 1969, and the only other black in the House was defeated in '71," Robinson said. "That left me alone until last year" when three blacks joined him in the House.

Robinson said that at first other black groups "questioned the point of my serving in a body that was so insensitive to black issues." He remembers the controversy around legislation proclaiming Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a state holiday. It was "a bitter thing" and his first attempts to memorialize the day were met "with catcalls," he says. Then Gov. Mills E. Godwin vetoed the first King holiday bill.

A King holdiay was subsequently approved by the next legislature and signed by Gov. John N. Dalton.

There's is "none of this Ku Klux Klan, knee-jerk, reaction anymore," Robinson said. Robert C. Scott, a black freshman from Newport News, agrees that the black legislators have made gains in the Assembly. "I think we're doing pretty well," Scott said, noting that the percentage of blacks in Virginia, 18 percent, is the lowest of any Southern state.

Wilder expects that in the next three to four years "there will be three, maybe four, black senators and seven to 10 black House members, including black women."

And he expects the new arrivals will not cause the stir he did "when they called my deskmate and delicately got around to informing him that he'd be seated next to me."

Some of his colleagues then "didn't really think I should be here, but they were gentlemen about it and kept it to themselves," Wilder said. Still their insensitivity to black issues "sometimes made me so angry that I couldn't talk."

What Wilder calls "a vast chasm and gulf between the races" remains, but the gap has narrowed he said. Nonetheless the black legislator joined other black leaders earlier this month to denounce Democratic Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb's endorsement of 10 white males to new federal judgeships.

"My theory of the black elected official," said Wilder, Choing similar statements by the women legislators, "is that he has to be a voice for people who otherwise would never have one."