The most hotly contested races in the District went to women candidates this year, shattering a perception that women aren't tough enough to lead a major city besieged with crime and fiscal problems, feminist leaders said yesterday.

"It's a much more evenhanded way that the electorate is looking at who is running for office," said Beverly McFarland, a spokeswoman for the League of Women Voters. "It's very good news to see that women who have expertise, a good track record and experience are finally prevailing at the polls."

On Election Day, in a reflection of impressive victories by women nationwide, the issue of sex bias was convincingly dispelled in Sharon Pratt Dixon's successful bid to become the first woman mayor of Washington and in the race for D.C. delegate, where Eleanor Holmes Norton prevailed. In the at-large council race, Linda Cropp and Hilda H.M. Mason easily beat back an attempt by D.C. Mayor Marion Barry to stay in elective office after his conviction and sentencing on a drug possession charge.

Some political observers suggest that District voters sought qualities in political leaders generally attributed to women, such as compassion and commitment. The electorate wanted officeholders concerned about "kitchen table issues" such as balancing checkbooks, quality education and good health care, according to these observers.

"These women are seen as fighters, as tough competitors, as people who are strong advocates because they have had to be to get where they are," said Wendy Sherman, who heads EMILY's List, a national women's fund-raising group based in the District.

In the past, some women candidates in Washington have said they have encountered more public resistance to their campaigns than their male counterparts because of persistent stereotypes that also have shadowed women's campaigns across the country.

Women traditionally have served on the D.C. school board, and have been prominent on the D.C. Council. But some feminist leaders feel that historically, women in the District have been seen as not being able to handle the high-profile, power-wielding job of mayor.

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

Former D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz, a white Republican, challenged Barry in the 1986 election and received 33 percent of the vote to Barry's 61 percent. Schwartz cited male "chauvinism" as a primary factor, while others attributed it to her party affiliation and race.

Women "were perceived by the electorate as being more ethical, more compassionate and more honest," said Jane Danowitz, executive director of the Women's Campaign Fund. "It's clear that voters in Washington wanted a change. District politics in 1990 offered a golden opportunity for women and women were able to capitalize on it."

Voter exit polls this year suggested that sex was not an issue in the mayoral race.

"It's significant that Sharon Pratt Dixon assumed such a large majority of the vote, specifically when her opponent went after her on macho issues, reducing crime and attacking her on her plan to reduce the city work force," Danowitz said.

The Rev. A. Knighton Stanley, co-chair of Dixon's campaign committee, said the women candidates managed to overcome another potential obstacle: the powerful black church in a city where what worshippers hear from the pulpit often has a conservative bent.

Annette Samuels, former president of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women's Capital City chapter and a member of the Dixon campaign staff, said she has heard for more than two years now that the city was not ready for a woman mayor "because both men and women were still too chauvinistic to elect a woman."

Samuels, Barry's press secretary from 1981 to 1987, saw Dixon's election as a dramatic breakthrough because "people were able to see that a woman could lead the city and help to rebuild it."