Virginia has always been a state filled with surprises. Not only did it house the capital of the Confederacy, but it also produced some pretty interesting Americans, like Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee. During its 1984 Democratic presidential caucuses, Virginia's party activists also gave their "popular vote" to Jesse L. Jackson. But Tuesday night's election of L. Douglas Wilder and Mary Sue Terry may be one of the biggest surprises Virginians have given the nation in quite some time.

State Sen. Wilder, 54, the grandson of a slave, made history by becoming the first black elected lieutenant governor in a southern state. Del. Terry, 38, a lawyer from the town of Critz, became the state's first female attorney general.

Winning 52 percent of the vote, Wilder ran well in urban areas with strong black voter registration as well as in predominantly white sections such as Fairfax County, Alexandria and Arlington. According to exit polls, 46 percent of Virginia's white voters cast their ballots for Wilder.

Gaining 61 percent of the vote, Terry rolled up a margin of victory that was larger still, prompting many observers to say that this was not the old Virginia that diehards fondly remember.

According to some analysts, the fact that Terry and Wilder ran campaigns that played down sex and race not only contributed to their success but also contributed to the general acceptance of their victory. "All this represents remarkable progress," said Eddie N. Williams, president of the black-oriented Joint Center for Political Studies.

"They are indications that we are seeing the fruits of all the things we've been fighting for."

What Williams was alluding to is the generations-long struggle of blacks and women for justice and equality. But it is ironic that these gains have come at a time of growing conservatism and threats to the progress of these very groups.

According to historian John Hope Franklin, a professor at Duke University, a growing underclass is threatening to destroy the national fabric of a badly divided America. Yet Wilder's selection in a state with its traditions puts him in that small but growing number of blacks who are gaining unprecedented political power.

In a period when women complain that many of their gains are being eroded and the Equal Rights Amendment went down to defeat, Terry joins numerous other women who have sought and achieved political recognition. "It should send a signal to the Democratic Party that you can have diversity and win," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women. "It is what the Jackson and Ferraro campaigns have said. It is a message that they can't just go after white men to maintain a strong political party. It also sends a message to both parties that women and blacks aren't tiny interests, but broad constituencies that must be integrated into their concerns."

In the case of Wilder, his victory was a measure of his tremendous ability as a politician. "They started with three people in the basement of his law office," said state Senate Clerk Jay Shropshire, "in a state with a 15 percent black population and Wilder went out and sold himself to Virginia."

Although he had long been identified as a supporter of a holiday for Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, he chose to make an advertisement for television that showed him with a white deputy sheriff. He knew it was important to build his campaign on his ability, experience and willingness to serve all Virginians, rather than to try to ride into office on the issue of race.

In one sense, he is part of a growing number of blacks who have been able to transcend the more narrow label of "black politician" to become national leaders. Jackson did it with his respectable showing in the primaries.

But make no mistake about it, in playing down race these candidates are not denying race. Rather they are appealing to universal human qualities. Their pragmatism brings out the pragmatism in their voters.

Of course, Wilder and Terry's election may mean different things to different people. But one point is clear: In politics as in life, very littleshould be predicated on sex and race. Unfortunately, too often, very much is.