For years Jess Sutphin, 55, worked hard for Fairfax County and believed the reason she was not promoted from her clerk typist job was because she lacked ability.

This week a federal court declared that Sutphin, who retired in January after 26 years, had been denied the job for another reason: She is a woman.

That determination means Sutphin will receive $32,731.75 in back pay, one of the largest awards to be distributed by Fairfax County to 685 alleged victims of race and sex discrimination. They will be paid a total of $2.75 million as part of a legal agreement between Fairfax and the Justice Department, which had sued the county for employment discrimination.

"It feels so good to have someone tell you you're not just another complaining woman, which is what I was told all those years," says Sutphin, a reserved, no-nonsense woman with an unwavering blue-eyed gaze.

For more than 15 years, according to Sutphin and Justice attorneys, she worked as a skilled engineering technician, determining where manholes should be and how sewer pipe should be laid. For most of those years she was paid the salary of clerk typist--about $5,000 a year less than a skilled engineering technician.

"I was shocked," says Sutphin, who lives in a brick rambler in Fairfax City. "I had never really let myself think about the sum I might get. It was a very nice surprise."

More important than the money, Sutphin says, is knowing that her lack of advancement was not due to a lack of ability. "I felt that I'd worked as hard as possible and I should be promoted, and I couldn't understood why I was not," said Sutphin, who watched men doing the same work and with less seniority being promoted. "Your self-confidence and your self-esteem take a real blow. You begin to wonder if you're any good."

The settlement, which permits Fairfax to maintain its innocence, dates back to 1972, the year federal civil rights legislation was extended to public employes. But Sutphin and Justice attorneys say her complaint dates back much further than that. "Her actual loss was much greater than $32,731, but we put a cap on the awards because it would have been unseemly," said Justice attorney Katherine Ransel.

In 1956 Sutphin, then a clerk in the Department of Public Works, replaced two engineering aides who joined the military, but she did not receive a commensurate raise or promotion. "I didn't attach any significance to it at the time," she recalls. "It was just the way things were."

Every time she asked to be promoted Sutphin says she was told either that no openings existed or that it was simply "not possible to move into the technical field from clerical help." However, the technical job she was performing for lower pay required only three years experience and Sutphin had 15 years.

"I had put in too many years to quit," she says. "I wasn't sure I could get another job and I knew I wasn't going anywhere, but I didn't know what to do about it. And I wanted to make working for the county my career."

In 1979, when a friend told her Justice was looking for victims of alleged discrimination, she met with Ransel.

Last April U.S. District Judge Albert V. Bryan Jr. said the government had established a pattern of discrimination against women in every job category except clerical, against blacks in every category except maintenance and against both in all but high-level administrative jobs.

In 1980, Sutphin was finally promoted to the job of engineering technician, where she remained until her retirement. Sutphin says she feels no bitterness. She plans to trade in her camper for a larger one and invest what's left of the $24,516 she will receive after taxes. The decision also will increase Sutphin's pension.

"I like the county and I don't want to bear them any ill will," says Sutphin. "I don't think sex has to enter into this. The idea is just to do right by people and play fair . . . I always thought if you try hard and do a good job, you are rewarded. I know now that's absolutely untrue."