Patricia R. Sher was a young Montgomery County housewife, juggling diapers, cooking and caring for two toddlers, when she turned to politics as a break from household chores two decades ago.

About the same time, Martha V. Pennino, a Vienna housewife, convinced her garden club to divert its attention from flower arranging to fighting a high-rise building planned for Vienna, a battle that led to her election to the Vienna Town Council.

Ellen M. Bozman of Arlington had a short career as a federal budget officer but quit in 1952 when the first of her three children was born. To satisfy a lingering interest in government, she turned to the League of Women Voters and other volunteer groups, and finally to county government.

Now Sher, 52, is a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, Pennino, 60, is vice chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, and Bozman, 58, is chairman of the Arlington County Board.

Sher, Pennino and Bozman are among the growing number of women in the metropolitan area's three most affluent counties who have moved into key governmental positions, bringing with them new attention to traditional women's issues and changing the style and temperment of their governments.

"We Arlington board members all think very much the same way on Metro, but there are some areas that, as a woman, I'm simply more aware of," says Bozman, who was instrumental in creating an extended child-care program for students in Arlington County schools, a program she first worked on as a volunteer in the 1960s.

The emergence of women political leaders in the suburbs has focused public attention on so-called women's issues, such as education, child care, spouse abuse and divorce laws. But it has also altered the political wheeling and dealing that used to be a fixture in many county governments.

"Women are less likely to cut a deal," says one high-ranking Virginia male Republican. "They take the high road as opposed to back-room dealing."

Retired Democratic Maryland state senator Victor L. Crawford of Montgomery says that he has found that approach is sometimes unrealistic. "When you sit on the finance committee and have to balance off all the issues, they don't understand," Crawford says. "They will go to the wall and they will never forgive and never forget."

Crawford cites legislative fights over battered-spouse bills. "If one of these women becomes involved with battered spouses, and you point out that you're talking about $500,000 for only 20 women and that it would be cheaper to give each of them $10,000 and send them to Hawaii, they get mad at you. The issue is all-important for them."

Montgomery Del. Idamae Garrott says that women politicians can and do cut deals, but she says that's not necessarily the mark of an effective legislator.

"I think women can wheel and deal," she says. "The question is to what extent they should. But I think women are capable of it. I like to decide issues on their merits. That may sound naive, but I think you have better government for it. I don't think that's because I'm a woman."

Women outnumber men on county boards in Fairfax and Arlington and in the Montgomery County delegation to the Maryland House of Delegates, which has smaller districts than the Montgomery County Board, making the delegate seats easier for newcomers to win. In all three counties, one or both of the major political parties are run by women and women activists are leaders in major civic groups.

Unlike the District of Columbia, where most of the female officeholders got their political start in the civil rights movement, most of the women involved in suburban politics were housewives who initially channeled their talents into traditional community groups like civic clubs, service leagues, PTAs and the League of Women Voters.

"I spent nine years on the board of the League of Women Voters," says Garrott, a past president of the League. "I was active in Girl Scouts and the Brownies. I was also on the board of the Humane Society."

"All of us came out of the civic associations, as well as the Democratic Party precinct organization," says Montgomery's Sher. "We've got an abundance of well-educated women who never worked--or never had to work. So we had a terrific source of women to do volunteer work. About 10 years ago, many of them started to view themselves as candidates."

This "housewife movement" was helped by the vacuum created by the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal workers from partisan political activities and thus keeps many men out of suburban politics.

Women politicians also profited from the rapid influx of educated, affluent families into Montgomery, Fairfax and Arlington counties after World War II, growth that disrupted the traditional political equations and, politicans say, made it easier for outsiders to make inroads.

In contrast, Prince George's County has had fewer female elected officials, and an old-style political machine still partly controls county politics. Alexandria, which also has fewer female elected officials, has a more tightly run, established political structure.

Bozman, who today is one of three women on the five-member Arlington Board, was its first woman member in 15 years when she joined it in 1974. Since then, she has led a successful fight for minimum standards for child-care centers and an unsuccessful one for part-time jobs and internships to help older women trying to re-enter the work force.

"The woman's experience brings an added dimension to local lawmaking that comes out of the personal experiences of being a woman and of having children," she says, but adds that only a small percentage of her workday is occupied with so-called women's issues.

In Fairfax, Supervisor Audrey Moore, the Annandale Democrat and one of five women on the nine-member County Board, is often cited as the quintessential activist housewife-turned-politician, whose relentless fight against rapid residential growth and powerful developers has won her both fans and critics.

Some of Moore's critics say she could accomplish more if she would learn to make deals and to compromise more frequently. Moore counters that she does compromise, and adds that those criticisms of her are a "defensive reaction" by politicians who feel uneasy because she insists on raising the controversial development issue that they would prefer to ignore.

One county official who disagreed, said: "She Moore comes up with some good ideas . . . but people are so tired" of hearing her talk about growth that they "turn her off."

But her defenders argue that Moore's continual pounding away has produced results--like the decision last year to impose strict development restrictions in the western quarter of the county near the Occoquan Reservoir.

That same uncompromising fervor marked the efforts of citizen activist Priscilla Benner's fight with the county over the Laytonsville landfill in Montgomery County. Benner compiled reams of complex data on water purity and engineering design specifications, and challenged county officials whenever the project was under discussion.

It took three years of negotiations before Montgomery could open the garbage landfill, delays that the county found costly but Benner's supporters say protected community interests.

Likewise, citizen activist Peggy Erikson was able to delay indefinitely a costly new garbage incinerator in Washington Grove by arming herself with data on air quality and cost-effectiveness and challenging the Montgomery County bureaucracy every inch of the way.

Many say that until now women have had the luxury of taking the high road because many of them had no desire to move beyond citizen activist or county supervisor or state legislator. But as women increasingly eye national offices or statewide posts, they may have to develop agility in behind-the-scenes vote-trading and deal-making in order to move into leadership positions avoid angering key groups.

In fact, there have always been some women who have held their own in this game. Back in the 1950s, Montgomery Appeals Court Judge Rita C. Davidson was chairman of the influential Kensington-Wheaton Democratic Club. "She was Big Momma," Crawford recalls. "We called her 'Boss Davidson.' "

Pennino, too, is considered an able gamesman. After her recent success at getting the board to endorse a controversial resolution designating Reston as the site of the next hospital in Fairfax, a male supervisor remarked: "Nobody counts votes better than Martha. And it's hard to say no to Martha," because she's savvy enough to call in her chits only when she really needs them.

But Pennino's instincts go beyond local office. She made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for Congress in 1974, and she has said she might consider it again except that campaigning is costly.

Fundraising, say Pennino and other women, is an area in which women often fall far short of men. The money people--mostly males--give to the candidates they see as winners. In the big races for Congress or governor, many big contributors apparently view women as high-risk investments.

"Women have not moved in those circles of people with money. They're not on the bank boards, the corporate boards," says Jane Vitray, secretary of the Fairfax Electoral Board and the first woman chairman of the Fairfax Democratic Party. "Also, the best way to get money is to look someone in the eye and say, 'I need a contribution from you.' Women are reticent to do this. But they're changing."

In Maryland, women have fared slightly better, at one time dominating the congressional delegation. But Montgomery's 8th Congressional District has not had a serious woman candidate since 1952, when council member Stella Werner, known as "Mrs. Democrat," ran for Congress. In addition, there is only one woman state senator--Margaret (Peggy) Schweinhaut. Some well-known Montgomery women who have made serious bids for higher office--for example, Idamae Garrott for county executive--failed.

The changing nature of suburban politics may mean that more women attorneys and other professionals will enter politics. If so, they will be coming in at a younger age, like many of their male counterparts, according to Ann Lewis, political director of the Democratic National Committee.

Others say, however, that the number of activist housewives may dwindle as more women opt for full-time careers. "One of the things that has happened to both parties is that with women going back to work, they are not the great source of volunteers anymore," says Fairfax's Vitray. "There is a real shortage of volunteers to do the kind of work that I did."

Augustus C. Johnson, a Northern Virginia Democrat, recalls that a 1964 voter registration drive in the area was conducted by 1,800 volunteers, almost all women, who made 80,000 phone calls. "Needless to say, we don't have that kind of person-power anymore," he says. "Two-income families is now the pattern. Women don't have to sit at home and look for something to do."

There are those who argue that to keep government honest, there must be a group of educated people who are wealthy enough and willing to spend hours serving the government in low-paying or volunteer jobs to prevent things from being swept under the table.

"You go back to the old notion of noblesse oblige," says Montgomery County Democratic Party veteran Marie Garber. "The founding fathers assumed that there would be an aristocracy that would have time for public service."

And that aristocracy in the Washington suburbs is the housewives. "Who has the time to go to council meetings day and night? Only those who don't work. If the housework gets behind, you can hire a maid or a baby sitter," Garber says. "I call it the tyranny of the leisure class. Maybe it's the privilege of the middle class."