The opening shots in the general election races for D.C. mayor and delegate were unabashed Republican attacks on the female sex that fly in the face of last week's primary results.

Painting his opponent, Sharon Pratt Dixon, as soft on crime, mayoral hopeful Maurice T. Turner Jr. said, "I'm committed to doing something positive about crime. She talks about compassion and doing something socially -- you have to do those things, but you've got to have a strong and forceful effort out there. {Law enforcement} is the part my opponent would probably skip."

D.C. delegate candidate Harry M. Singleton jumped in with an even more personal attack on his opponent, Eleanor Holmes Norton, calling her "a nasty, nasty lady" and criticizing her temperament as "very caustic and quick to fly off the handle."

Dixon responded without stooping to Turner's double-entendres and transparent references, pointing instead to the differences in their political philosophies. One wonders why Turner interprets Dixon's approach as soft on crime. Or exactly what he means by that.

Women mayors such as Chicago's Jane Byrne and San Francisco's Diane Feinstein did not have a reputation for coddling criminals. And India's Indira Gandhi and Israel's Golda Meir had no trouble maintaining discipline in their domains. Neither does history show that to lead these women had to be caustic, as Singleton would paint Norton to be.

But even if history and fact did not dispute them, Turner and Singleton are taking a dangerous tack setting out to use gender as a weapon to garner voter support. The women's vote in last week's primary was significant, and it would be foolish for any candidate to alienate it. Besides, with the city divided as it is along racial and economic lines, it would be reprehensible for candidates to try to slice it yet another way to suit their own purposes.

In considering the gender issue, some people would be eager to say that the triumph of Dixon and Norton represented the ascendant political power of black women sending a message that men have made a mess of things.

While many women, black and white, no doubt held their heads a little higher on Wednesday, viewing the vote as a mandate for women would be superficial and counterproductive.

Last week's vote clearly was a repudiation of the incumbents and of the status quo. It probably was not, however, consciously achieved along gender lines. Few voters, I suspect, consciously decided to cast a vote for Dixon and Norton as a way to open the door for females to demonstrate their governing abilities. They simply saw these two women as better candidates than their male or other female competitors.

Some men may want to cling to old attitudes about the female sex out of frustration and discomfort with the prospect of women in positions of authority, but enlightened black males know that historically black women have known how to lead. Centuries before there was a women's liberation movement, black women were raising their families, working full time and fighting hard to achieve a higher status for themselves, their families and their race.

Enlightened men don't find women power figures threatening. Even those who think the city needs a strong black role model decided in the primary that the best black role models might be women who promised to provide economic opportunity, self-esteem and a model of success that could be emulated.

Strict gender thinking denigrates the abilities and character of the candidates. Ultimately, it also could be divisive at a time when this city desperately needs to come together.

Fortunately, gender attacks did not emerge forcefully during the primary campaign. And none of the candidates who tried to make race an issue came out on top. That should be a signal to Republican candidates that D.C. voters are tired of name-calling and labels and responsive to candidates who stress issues, not negative stereotypes.