Her committee meetings begin at 7 a.m. -- an hour that many legislators curse.

Still, they pack the room, clutching thick sheafs of papers and steaming cups of coffee. Lawmakers, lobbyists and others interested in money for health and welfare programs have learned that if they want their issues to have a chance in the Virginia General Assembly, they had better set an alarm clock and crowd into the tiny Appropriations Library when state Del. Dorothy Shoemaker McDiarmid calls the meeting to order.

"It's a stiff schedule," concedes McDiarmid, the Fairfax County Democrat who chairs the Human Resources Subcommittee, which screens millions in state money for Virginia's social programs. "But they all come, hopeful to get more money."

She presides like a matriarch over the dawn debates. The silver hair and genteel manner of the 77-year-old grandmother belie the toughness that her colleagues say has made her the most powerful woman in the General Assembly.

"Don't think because Dorothy has a grandmotherly look that she can't cut you off at the knees," said Del. Warren G. Stambaugh, an Arlington Democrat. "You don't get that kind of power without knowing how to use it."

They call her the Queen of the Virginia General Assembly. A "real lady." An elder statesman.

With 22 years in the House, her seniority makes her the most powerful member of the Northern Virginia legislative delegation, colleagues say.

As the only woman on the influential House-Senate conference committee that pounds out conflicts in the state's $16 billion budget, McDiarmid is one of the most influential women in state politics, legislators say.

She has managed to win respect and influence in a traditionally male-dominated club where women usually wield little political clout. "Despite the fact she's a woman, she has their respect," said Sen. Clive L. DuVal II, a Fairfax Democrat.

"When she gets up to speak, her demeanor and bearing command my respect," said Del. Clifton A. Woodrum, a three-term Democrat from Roanoke. "I'd no sooner interrupt Dorothy McDiarmid than talk back to my mother."

Some legislators say it is age (she is the oldest member of the General Assembly) as much as seniority that compels her colleagues to treat her with such deference.

"She may not like to have anyone say that," added DuVal.

Indeed she does not. In fact, she is so sensitive about her age that she stopped listing her birthday in the official House of Delegates biography in 1968. The biography of the Swarthmore College political science graduate does note, however, "family continuously resident in Virginia since 1706."

"I don't think it's age" that commands respect, said McDiarmid, who has twice lost her seat since she was first elected to the House in 1960. "I just think it's seniority."

Because of that seniority, she is the only woman committee chairman in the legislature. She presides over the Education Committee as well as the Human Resources Subcommittee of the appropriations panel.

McDiarmid, considered a political moderate, adeptly uses the importance of her seniority as a campaign tool to fend off forceful challenges from younger candidates and Republicans who now dominate her district: "I know a lot more than anybody who could take my place."

She coyly dodges questions about rumors that she may not seek re-election this fall in the district where she resides with her husband on their 40-acre Meadowlark Farm between Vienna and Reston.

Dorothy McDiarmid, say her colleagues, is a survivor. She knows how to play her cards in a political arena where closely held Southern traditions frequently mask the sometimes distasteful inner workings of the process.

"She is steely in a genteel way," said Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr., a Fairfax Democrat.

McDiarmid was the chief legislative sponsor of the repeatedly defeated Equal Rights Amendment in Virginia, but she lashed out furiously when one group of women's rights activists led a rowdy protest against one committee vote and were dragged by police from the halls of the state Capitol.

"These women have been raised in the image of Alice Paul chained to the White House fence," she told reporters after that 1978 demonstration. "That doesn't work in Virginia."

"She's taken her lickings well and has the persistence to come back," DuVal said of McDiarmid's legislative technique.

Several years ago, when McDiarmid asked her colleagues to establish a division of state government for spouse abuse, they whittled her bill to an innocuous piece of legislation that only allowed the state to accept federal funds for such programs.

"Anybody else would have just dropped it," said Gartlan. "She took what little they gave her, and now we have $400,000 for spouse abuse in this year's budget."

McDiarmid concentrates her legislative battles on education, health and welfare programs. She is credited with bringing kindergarten to Virginia's public school system.

Legislators rarely talk about McDiarmid without mentioning her husband, Hugh, the man they call the 141st legislator. He is a fixture on the back row of the House chamber, where state delegates say he has sat in the same chair every session his wife has been a member of the House.

He is her alter ego, many legislators say. Even before his recent retirement from the real estate business, he served as her legislative aide, personal confidant and political rumor control. "The gruff old bear," said one Northern Virginia delegate, keeps closer tabs on legislation than most of the elected members.

Some lawmakers say she has paved the way for other women's entry into the male-dominated General Assembly. But Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. of Fairfax, the House Republican minority leader, noted, "She's in a different category. She's beyond the stage of tilting at windmills."

Said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Edward E. Willey (D-Richmond), in the biggest compliment a male legislator can give, "She's a regular guy."