"The Mary Baldwin girl?"

"She's a southern Mary Tyler Moore . . . competent, on-the-go, a scrubbed glamor girl . . . She shaves her legs . . . she knows how to combine a strong southern tradition -- assertive in a subtle way -- with femininity and use it to her advantage. . .

"Unlike her predecessor, today's Mary Baldwin girl wants to be a career woman. But she also wants to be married to the corporate executive.

"What does the Mary Baldwin girl want?

"Well, she wants it all." -- Virginia Lester, president of Mary Baldwin College.

For three nights, the stately lobby of Hunt Hall at Mary Baldwin College in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley was filled with pastels and Pappagallos. The seniors were participating in a special seminar: Life After Mary Baldwin.

The curriculum at one of the South's oldest women colleges included how to find an apartment, how to keep a budget, what to expect the first day on the job and, generally, how to face the outside world.

For some, it was a revelation.

"It was very humbling, but wonderful," said Courtney Lester, a finely sculpted blond from Martinsville.

"For most of us, this will be the first time we have made our own money or made a car payment. . . There are a lot of things we don't realize about what it's like after graduation," she said. "It's really important that the girls understand what they're up against."

Here in Staunton, where the Blue Ridge strikes out from one side and the Shenandoah Mountains from the other, Mary Baldwin is 200 miles and a cultural identity away from Washington. This is not just another women's college. Like neighboring Hollins, Sweet Briar and Randolph-Macon, it is a southern women's college.

"The Southern distinction is important. . . We're not trying to emulate the image of a northern women's college. Southern women are different," said Virginia Lester. "When I first arrived [from New York], I was convinced women were women wherever they were. But it is different here. Life is more genteel.

"These girls come from a milieu where men can't help them out of their jackets quick enough. They are used to getting out of an elevator first or having someone open a door for them. . . They want to continue living like that.

"Southern women may be lagging 10 years behind in women's issues but, in the end, it will work for them because they won't make the same mistakes the early feminists did."

A poll last year of Mary Baldwin's 675 students showed that only 23 percent, half of the national average, supported the Equal Rights Amendment. pThis year, 25 seniors in a class of 134 already are engaged, many to their "HTH" [hometown honey] or a cadet from Virginia Military Institute in nearby Lexington.

In fact, Mary Baldwin is an anomaly among small liberal arts colleges. Founded in 1842 as a Presbyterian seminary for women, it not only is surviving, but thriving. In the last four years, enrollment has increased 42 percent, endowment funds have shot up nearly 250 percent and the campus has been expanded more than 150 percent.

In an age when private colleges are continuously teetering between financial desperation and closing, Mary Baldwin's books have been in the black for two years.

"We are not a dying breed," said John Wighton, Mary Baldwin's vice president of development. "The problem with feminism in some schools is that only one position is argued and advocated.

"At Mary Baldwin, we strive to teach the students only how to discover truth. You're wrong if you think universities should seek to change society. Since Cro-Magnon man, the purpose of an education was to perpetuate the culture."

And, if nothing more, President Lester said, an education at Mary Baldwin is a practical one. As she put it: "These girls know that honey always attracts more flies."

"I try to think of the students as coming from a disadvantaged background," said biology professor Sue Rosser. "They come from a background where they got a lot of the goodies in life from parents who are predominantly conservative. They still feel bound to their parents' opinions."

Rosser, who teaches a female sexuality course, said she avoids using tract "feminist jargon" in classroom discussions.

"I use a different technique here than I would at a more liberal institution. I've got to back them (the students) into thinking about women's issues. . . It's not that they don't believe in equality, it's just that they don't know they do." Life at Mary Baldwin

Cream-colored in facade, the college proudly stands in tiers on the crest of Staunton like a wedding cake for all its guests to see. Woodrow Wilson's childhood home piggybacks the grounds, and an old mill down the road has been turned into a trendy restaurant. But each day, it's the women who are noticed -- 675 women attending and loving a college that some critics said wouldn't survive more than a decade.

"I love waking up every morning here," said Pam McCain, an ashen-haired debutante from South Carolina. The third member of her family to attend Mary Baldwin, life pre-M.B. for McCain has been good, very good. Southern by birth, Republican by party, monied by class and attractive by nature, she emerges as the new southern woman and is representative of many of her fellow classmates. They, like her, are ambitious but feminine; want a career with a family; are assertive yet gracious, support equality but oppose ERA.

In short, McCain is the new southern belle -- with a twist.

She hopes to attend business graduate school next year and plans to work about 10 years before quitting to begin a family.

"I love being called a southern belle . . . it means being refined, cultured . . . Scarlett O'Hara . . . but there's more to it than most people think. Having a successful marriage and raising a family is one of the most important things in my life, but I also want a career for a while."

There are some students, however, who feel the image of the winsome belle -- whether on-the-go or not -- is a tiresome one.

"Sure, Mary Baldwin is a southern school with an obvious southern influence, but I hate this idea that everyone here is a jewelry-laden daddy's little rich girl who's looking for a tweedy shoulder that starts out making $24,000 a year and will buy her a summer home in Connecticut and a Volvo station wagon," said senior Eva Dillard from Halifax County. "There are some people like that here, but not everyone. Just because you wear pink cords doesn't mean you have to act like you wear them -- even I have pink pants in my closet."

Although she might be considered a middle-of-the-roader elsewhere, here students and administrators defer to Dillard as one of Mary Baldwin's few "campus liberals." The granddaughter of former Virginia governor William M. Tuck, a product of the conservative Byrd machine, she campaigned for independent presidential candidate John Anderson; supports the ERA, describes the Richmond newspapers as reactionary and reads authors like gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

Said one student: "Eva's a little extreme, but we still love her."

To demonstrate just how accepted she is despite her views, Dillard's fellow students said they elected her to play one of the most important posts at Mary Baldwin -- chairman of the Honor Council.

Unlike other universities where discussion of an honor code ends as soon as the catalogue ink is dry, students insist the honor system at Mary Baldwin is enforced and is an integral part of the Mary Baldwin experience. Students are expected to report -- and do -- incidents of cheating, stealing and lying by themselves and others.

Last year, Dillard said, her committee investigated at least 60 complaints. But she said that many of the reported incidents frequently are unfounded, but the honor system is so entrenched students sometimes report themselves for what may only be a minor infraction.

As a consequence of the honor system, Dillard and adminstrators said it is possible to allow students to schedule and proctor their own final exams.

Some students, however, contend the code is both ineffective and outdated. "It's just queer. If I found myself going 70 miles an hour on the highway, do you think I'd pull over at the next police station and turn myself in?," asked Stephanie Becker, a Florida native. "You've got to be kidding."

There also is a "social code" at Mary Baldwin, which regulates such things as men's visiting hours and drugs. The social code works much like the honor code; student police themselves.

Mary Baldwin students say there is little need for the social code. For one thing, they say, drugs other than alcohol are most nonexistent and men -- ususally from nearby Washington and Lee University or VMI -- are around only on weekends and can spend the night in the women's bedrooms in four of the nine dorms.

Do they?

"The sexual revolution? I think it might have ended before we started," answered one young woman, her door slicked with Reagan and Bush bumper stickers and her weekend date banished momentarily behind it. "Well, sometimes I'll let my date spend the night in the room if he has nowhere else to go -- but he sleeps in one bed and I sleep in the other. The first couple of times, he thought something else was going to happen, but I just put on my flannel nightgown, hopped into bed and turned my face to the wall. He understands now.

"If I'm going to do that, I might as well be married. It would really let my parents down if they found something like that out."

Some, like Becker, doubted the pristine image. "You never know with a lot of girls around here. Everyone is always talking about who is or isn't (a virgin) and they act shocked if they hear someone slept with their date. But I think a lot of the girls are just pretending to be ignorant abour sex because that's the way 'nice girls' should be."

"You'll find some girls here who won't kiss on the first date, but sleep with the guy on the next one."

Or, as Dillard said: "Sex is of interest at Mary Baldwin as it is elsewhere. You can't just make a generalization and say Mary Baldwin girls will do such and such on the first date and such and such on the second date. There are some girls here who are really relaxed about sex, and there are others who are extremely uptight. Take your pick, they're all here." The Academic Life

"Mary Baldwin is not a finishing school, and to think so is a ludicrous notion," president Lester stated emphatically one evening, answering critics who have said otherwise. "Mary Baldwin has made a strong statement in the South about its academic excellence."

The average combined college board scores of last year's entering freshman was 887, three points below the national average, but 140 points higher than for other college-bound southern women, according to a study prepared by the college.

As Dana Flanders, a junior from New Orleans, put it: "Mary Baldwin has to survive . . . there are so few places left like Mary Baldwin . . . we know how to act and behave . . . when you come to Mary Baldwin, you just know it's right -- you get this instinctive feeling about it. Mary Baldwin teaches you how to get along with people, and isn't that what the outside world is all about?" Tradition at Mary Baldwin

One evening each November, the Cadillacs, Mercedes and "daddy" roll up to Mary Baldwin. Suited in tuxes and shiny shoes, the father have arrived for a night of dining and dancing at the annual Junior Dad's Day Dance.

Approaching the night's climax, dad and daughter step through a giant ring-like formation. Dad bends forward, slips a class ring onto the young lady's finger, sprightly kisses her cheek and waltzes his daughter onto the dance floor.

"I know it sounds queer, but it really isn't. Its a marvelous way to get to know your father . . . My father and I were never really very close before Junior Dad's Day, but that night I was able to say and do things I never really did before," said Dillard.

"Its a quaint little anachromism of another time that I love."

At a college where tradition is not so much cut by diamonds as engraved in stone, Junior Dad's Day is only one of many events that have survived the years at Mary Baldwin. Photos line the dorms of Apple Day, Spring Soiree, Fall Taps and Peanut Week.

"A lot of girls come to Mary Baldwin because tradition is so important. Its kind of fun to know that there are certain things that were here before you and will continue after you go. Once you lose tradition, there's not a lot else that you have," said Elizabeth Halsey from South Carolina.

Indeed, next to Tallulah Bankhead, the student best remembered by the school alumni is Anna Jarvis, who created another tradition: Mother's Day. s

"If I wanted to go to a school where tradition was less important, and politics and that sort of thing really important I could have . . . but, really, we're not isolated here," said Halsey. "If I was interested in what was happening in the world, all I have to do is go downstairs and turn on the news.

"But, you know, I love it here; there are no worries. At Mary Baldwin, there's a feeling that you don't ever have to grow up.