It's Thursday night, and the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity headquarters in Northwest Washington rumbles with debate. Supporters of the Million Man March are planning what they hope will be a huge assembly of black men here this month, and a senior organizer is presiding, letting one long-winded speaker know his time has expired.

"Thank you, my brother," Faye Williams interrupts.

Williams, a lawyer and former congressional candidate, is a vital cog in the march's machinery, heading up its local organizing committee in Washington and directing dozens of men who are preparing for the event. But on Oct. 16, Williams won't be part of the crowd she is rounding up. This is the Million Man March -- and even female organizers are being urged to stay home.

A central paradox of this ambitious civil rights demonstration, which planners hope will bring hundreds of thousands to the Mall, is the role that African American women are playing in it. Excluded from the event's name, many individual women and influential women's groups are nonetheless supporting it ardently. Others say they are disturbed at being relegated to what they consider second-class status.

Backers, who include the poet Maya Angelou and the National Council of Negro Women, say that any event designed to uplift black men will inevitably benefit black women. They applaud two primary goals of the march: creating a picture of black men that defies negative stereotypes and encouraging black men to "atone to God for the way we have treated our women and girls," in the words of the event's originator, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

But detractors say Farrakhan traditionally has portrayed women as mere helpmates for men and several years ago made inflammatory remarks about the woman who was raped by former boxing champion Mike Tyson. They also contend that the march robs those women who agree with its aims of the chance to stand in solidarity with black men.

Williams says she is comfortable with her role. She said that, to ensure the march's success, organizers must "send out our strongest team, and women are some of the leaders of that team." But at the event itself, "I have great trust and respect in the leaders of the march, and I know that they will represent me well."

Alexis Nunley, 36, a mechanical engineer from Landover, said she is disappointed that she will not be welcomed at the march. "In order for the black family to be unified, you need all of the elements there," she said. "You can't have water without both hydrogen and oxygen. If you want the message out, you can't just have guys delivering the message."

Since its inception last year, the Million Man March has been aimed solely at African American men. Organizers say that no one who shows up for the demonstration will be asked to leave, but Farrakhan repeatedly has said women should stay at home and reflect on spiritual matters. That is consistent with the approach Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam have taken to women over the years.

Not long ago, Farrakhan staged a nationwide lecture tour and limited his audiences to men only. At Nation of Islam worship services, men and women sit apart on separate sides of the mosque. And some women who are ardent supporters of Nation of Islam say they see their role as ancillary to that of men.

Angela 6X Bone, 28, is a member of The Vanguard, a women's group that dresses head to foot in white linen and provides security and logistical support at Farrakhan's appearances. "We see ourselves primarily as supporters of what the black man is trying to do for ourselves and our children," she said.

On Oct. 16, Bone said, "we are asking the sisters not to shop and to hold their children back from school. This is a whole day of absence."

Farrakhan and another key organizer of the march, the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis, also have angered a number of women's groups in recent years. In 1992, Farrakhan appeared at a rally in support of boxing's Tyson, who was convicted of raping beauty pageant contestant Desiree Washington. In his speech, Farrakhan said Washington precipitated the rape.

"Mike liked women. . . . Desiree wasn't silly, Desiree was smart," Farrakhan said, according to the Associated Press. When Tyson showed up at the site of a beauty pageant, Farrakhan said, "you were bringing a hawk into the chicken yard, and the chicken got eaten up."

Chavis, a former executive director of the NAACP, lost that job after using organization funds to settle a sexual harassment complaint against him.

This history has caused some black women to keep their distance from the march. Some observers believe that younger people, both women and men, may have particular trouble it. Linda Williams, acting director of African American studies at the University of Maryland, said many of her students don't understand the march's sexual distinction.

"What is new is that this is a march that explicitly excludes women," she said. "Black women have not had the leadership roles in most endeavors, but they have always been included as the foot soldier. . . . Many of these {students} have been raised by single mothers, and they can't understand women being excluded."

But thus far, support for the march among African American women has vastly outweighed opposition. No organized women's groups have surfaced to object to the event. And in an apparent effort to head that off, march organizers recently decided to include several women as speakers on the platform, including civil rights icon Rosa Parks.

A number of mainline women's groups, including Zeta Phi Beta sorority and the National Political Congress of Black Women, have endorsed the march. Other prominent women, ranging from activist Dorothy Height to Cora Masters Barry, wife of District Mayor Marion Barry, also have blessed it.

Many of these supporters say they are not endorsing either the beliefs or the actions of Farrakhan and Chavis but support Farrakhan's call for African American men to "straighten their backs." Those women say that black men face a disproportionate threat from crime and drugs and that they are eager to help fight those problems, even if it means taking a back seat to men on this occasion.

"The Million Man March is important because most of us are resolved to the fact that if we can get a group of black men together for {something positive} it would be good," said Mary Frances Berry, a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. "We all know that Mr. Farrakhan is controversial, but the whole march is not about Farrakhan. It is too important. It's too crucial."

Cora Barry added: "This march is about the liberation of our people. It is not about division by gender."

The march also has captured the imaginations of some women who have not been politically active. Vanessa Davis, 42, of Manassas, said she volunteered to work in behalf of the march with her 21-year-old son, Michael, in mind. She said she reluctantly will stay away from the march itself, although "I would love to be there on the sidelines with tears streaming down my face with nothing but love for my black brothers and gratitude for their willingness to take the lead." But her goal is to help her son appreciate who he is. "I want him to understand the importance of being black and liking it," Davis said. CAPTION: Faye Williams, a lawyer and former congressional candidate, leads the local Million Man March organizing committee but plans to stay home for the Oct. 16 event, which is likely to draw thousands. CAPTION: Angela 6X Bone, shown at left, a member of Louis Farrakhan's The Vanguard.