The women's community in Washington is losing one of its best friends: Nancy Woodhull has resigned her position as president of Gannett News Service and is moving to Birmingham, Ala., to become executive vice president and editor in chief of Southern Progress Corp.

Woodhull, 45, was the highest ranking news executive at Gannett and she has been one of the few women who have broken through the glass ceiling into top media management. In her new job she will will oversee a Time Warner book division and the editorial content of five magazines, including the hugely successful Southern Living.

Irene Natividad, the former head of the National Women's Political Caucus, spoke for many women who have come into contact with Woodhull since she arrived here in 1982 as one of the founding editors of USA Today.

"We've always heard stories about women who make it to the top and forget they are part of the female race," says Natividad. "Well, Nancy Woodhull never forgot. She pushed for women in leadership positions both in the public and private sector. She not only signed on to advisory boards of women's organizations, she was actively involved in their agendas. She not only was verbal in her support, she accompanied it with dollars whenever she could. I'm happy she's advanced even further. But for those of us who have benefited from her being around, we feel this tremendous loss."

One of the people who worked most closely with Woodhull was Judith Mueller, head of the Women's Center in Northern Virginia, which last year helped 60,000 women through various forms of counseling and workshops. Mueller says Woodhull called to say she wanted to help and identified herself as an editor at USA Today, which had not yet been published.

"I said great, why not send us over a re'sume'," Mueller recalls. "It was clear from the re'sume' she hadn't graduated from college. I thought, my God, who is this woman who wants to help us who's never graduated from college and who works for this bogus newspaper that's never seen the light of day.

"We had this workshop on careers in writing and publishing. I said we can put her on this panel and pad her on either side and if she bombs, no one will know. Well, she was dazzling. Since that time forward I have been pleased to be in the kind of glow that Nancy spreads around town.

"I think the women's community in Washington was sort of like a black hole. She's the super nova that helped us all. Through her influence, her energy, her enthusiasm, she's been a voice not just for women, but between women. She get us connected so we have a better sense of ourselves and our roles in this community. She has allowed us to become accessible and visible to each other. One of the things that has been such a plague for women has been not knowing how to make these linkages. She arranges them for us.

"What she has done for the Women's Center is personal, financial and social. She personally ran workshops for us at the center until her life became so complex she could no longer do that. So she held them at Gannett." She says Woodhull started the center's Information and Career Advisory Network (I CAN), which is a mentoring organization. "She supported it through the Gannett Foundation," and contributed her speaking fees to the center, which were then matched by the foundation. "She's the featured speaker at our conference every year. People really want to hear what Nancy's thinking.

"I just find her an extraordinarily magnanimous person. There is so much of Nancy that she can afford to give it away and put other people in her embrace. That is the true essence of mentoring and that's what Nancy is."

Marianne Middleton-Murphy, Woodhull's assistant, says "her Bible is to every day do something for another woman." When the Women's Hall of Fame was about to go under, Woodhull secured a grant from the Gannett Foundation that saved it.

Why did she make it to the top? Allen H. Neuharth, chief executive officer of Gannett during Woodhull's assent, says this: "She demonstrated with us from the beginning that she would give no quarter and not expect any. She was as smart or smarter than those she worked with, and as tough or probably tougher -- and certainly as determined. She probably took me on directly, publicly and challenged me as often as anybody I've ever worked with. She wasn't always right, but she had strong opinions and made you think because she was a very independent voice."

Woodhull is married to Bill Watson and they have a 10-year-old daughter, Tennessee Jane. "She didn't get mommy-tracked," says Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.). "She takes her job very seriously, but she never took herself too seriously. She hasn't been the Queen Bee.

"Those are the kind you love to see break through the glass ceiling."