Mary McKenney, 100, leaned against the fence at Shiloh Baptist Church after a recent Sunday service and said she wouldn't mind having a woman as mayor "if she was big enough to hold the job."

On second thought, said the retired domestic worker who once served President Eisenhower in the White House, "it might be that a man would be more suitable."

Louise C. Jones, a member of the D.C. Nurses Association, said she heard similar sentiments from a group of women who "felt that the role of the mayor should represent a strong male image."

"I was surprised that women felt that way," said Jones. "My argument was, 'Well, look at the male that you have in there now.' "

Those and other sentiments typify the special challenge confronting D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis and lawyer Sharon Pratt Dixon in their bids to become the first black female mayor of a major city. The Democratic primary rivals say that despite credentials they say qualify them for the job, they have had a tougher time than their three male counterparts raising money, gaining endorsements and winning the confidence of voters.

The problem is ironic considering the plight and potential political might of women here: They compose the majority of registered voters (58.9 percent), and they turn out to vote in higher numbers than do men. They head most of the households here, yet they typically earn less than men. Many also are hostage to some of the most complex and intractable problems facing the city, including inadequate day care and health services.

Other factors, such as personality, experience and campaign style are also important. But the female candidates themselves -- as well as political consultants and pollsters -- say that a good deal of the public resistance Dixon and Jarvis encounter stems from lingering stereotypes that have hindered women's campaigns across the country. While female politicians are slowly gaining ground in legislatures and city councils, there still seems to be a nationwide reluctance to vote them into high-profile, power-wielding executive posts.

For instance, civil rights activist Eleanor Holmes Norton and council member Betty Ann Kane are two of the strongest candidates in the race for the D.C. delegate seat in Congress. But nationally, women have yet to win many of the major mayoral posts. And on the state level, Dianne Feinstein in California and Ann Richards in Texas are the first solid female contenders for governor of populous states.

Certain aspects of the general resistance to having women in executive positions seem more pronounced in the District. Though rarely acknowledged outright, it is a feeling that cuts across lines of sex, class and race, but seems strongest among blacks, many activists and analysts say. The sentiment is often subtly promoted by the powerful black church.

Washington is what ministers call "a good church town." And what churchgoers hear from the pulpit often has "a very conservative bent, especially in {terms} of what is appropriate leadership for women," said A. Knighton Stanley, of People's Congregational Church in Northwest, who is honorary chairman of Dixon's campaign. "It is unfortunate, because by doing so we don't have available to us the leadership potential of half the population . . . . You would hope that in a community like this, where the majority is African American, people would understand . . . that none is free until all are."

Debate over gender also has been fed by the image projected by Mayor Marion Barry, whose trial on drug and perjury charges has prompted some to yearn for a strong male to succeed him and provide a role model for youth.

"I think that is a ridiculous idea," Jarvis, a Ward 4 council member, told a gathering of 160 women at the downtown YWCA this week.

Dixon said in a recent interview that the notion of having a woman as mayor is "something people are wrestling with. My gut is if they wrestle with it, they will come out in the affirmative."

During a campaign in which the attention of voters is already diverted by Barry's trial, some of the issues that affect women most tend to escape careful examination because they are lumped in with an array of more general concerns.

While all five mayoral candidates cite a commitment to women's concerns in their platforms, Dixon and Jarvis are making special efforts to mobilize the bloc of women voters that Dixon calls "a sleeping giant." They often use a woman's perspective to hammer home themes such as family, ethics and education.

When she announced the launching of a Women for Dixon movement earlier this month, Dixon, who is divorced and the mother of two daughters, said, "We must waste no more time worrying about the current leadership. We must become that leadership."

Jarvis, who also is divorced and is the mother of two sons, told a gathering of 150 women in March that her campaign has been hampered by stereotypical beliefs about female politicians that range from fears they are too "independent" or "uncontrollable," to the belief that they can't handle crisis.

"It is clear that for women running for executive office there is a glass ceiling to break through," said Wendy Sherman, who heads EMILY'S List, a national women's fund-raising group based in the District. "Voters have an easier time seeing women as legislators than as executives."

In many respects, Washington is relatively fertile ground for women in politics, says Donna Brazile, who as manager of Norton's delegate campaign is one of a number of women running campaigns locally. Five of the 13 D.C. Council members are women, and seven of the 24 people who have served on the council since the advent of home rule in 1974 have been women.

Yet of the women who have run for D.C. mayor, none has come close to winning.

In 1982, Patricia Roberts Harris, a longtime Washington resident who held Cabinet posts in the Carter administration, was viewed by many as a strong challenger to a politically troubled Barry. Harris, however, received only 35.5 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary that Barry won with 58 percent.

Then-D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz, a Republican, challenged Barry in the 1986 election and received 33 percent of the vote, compared with Barry's 61 percent.

Political operatives attributed those losses to several factors, including Harris's personal style and Schwartz's race -- she is white -- and party affiliation. However, Schwartz, who attended the YWCA gathering last week, cited male "chauvinism" as a primary factor.

"Younger working women and white voters {in the District} tend to be more supportive of a woman candidate," said Celinda Lake, an experienced pollster in D.C. who has done some work for Norton's campaign. "Older voters and blacks tend to be less supportive."

White voting trends are affected more by class than race, said Lake, and the District's relatively small white population is for the most part educated and upwardly mobile. The black population spans a broader socioeconomic spectrum.

Women of all races lose ground to stereotypes when they seek political office, analysts say. But black women contend with an added obstacle: the black church, traditionally the most influential black institution in America.

Many women say that although females make up a majority of church members in the District, church leaders -- black and white -- still seem more inclined to appoint them to bake sale committees and choirs than to deacon and governing boards.

"The church is male-dominated," said Marianne Mann, a Ward 5 coordinator for Jarvis. "If they {men} don't support women in the church, they don't support them politically."

While numerous ministers have publicly announced support for male candidates in the race, Jarvis and Dixon have garnered little from preachers.

A young black minister, the Rev. Robert Childs of Berean Baptist Church in Northwest, serves as Jarvis's campaign chairman. But beyond that, Jarvis has not received a single endorsement from a black church, campaign officials said.

There are three ministers on Dixon's campaign committee -- Stanley, the Rev. Willie T. Wilson of Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast and the Rev. Charlene Monk of Douglas Memorial United Methodist Church in Northeast -- but none of them has been visibly active in her campaign.

Analysts say the inability to land such influential endorsements also hurts candidates' fund-raising efforts. Jarvis, who chairs the council's Housing and Economic Development Committee, which oversees banking and other interests, had raised $172,091 as of the last campaign finance reporting period.

Dixon, a former Democratic State Committee member and treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, had raised $218,868 as of the last reporting period. That figure, however, represents fund-raising efforts of nearly a year for Dixon, who launched her campaign in April 1989. Dixon, who reported $20,555 in cash on hand, is facing problems with $26,023 in debt, according to campaign finance records.

By comparison, D.C. Council member John Ray (At-Large), who leads all others in fund-raising, had brought in $689,000 as of the last reporting period; D.C. Council Chairman David A. Clarke reported $304,916 and D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy reported $184,418.

While Dixon has remained steadfast in her spirited advocacy of women's unity, Jarvis, who said recently she has "crossed the threshold," has toned down the gender talk since her campaign's momentum picked up.

Sherman, of EMILY'S List, said "women are running on their gender whether they want to or not. It is a strategic or tactical decision whether to further emphasize the special advantages women bring to the table. In some races it makes sense, in others it doesn't."