Lynda Bird Robb called them her "doe dinners," intimate gatherings of women who went to the Executive Mansion in Richmond to trade tales of frustration and failure, survival and success.
But these variations on male "stag parties" were not trivial social pursuits. They included the most high-powered, tough-minded women in Virginia's state government.
While it may have been Gov. Charles S. Robb who brought women into key government jobs, it was his wife who set about molding what she labeled "the ol' girls' network" into a competitive force in what once had been the men's world of Virginia politics.
"They're being taken seriously," said Lynda Robb, daughter of the late President Lyndon B. Johnson, as she recently reflected on her husband's four years as governor. "People are recognizing that you're really that policy maker, you're not someone who's supposed to go get a cup of coffee for them."
Charles Robb, who leaves office Saturday, appointed more women to boards and commissions and to head agencies -- 657 -- than any governor in Virginia. The appointees were 30 percent more than his Republican predecessor, John N. Dalton, and they placed Virginia among the 11 states with the highest percentage of women in top government jobs, according to a survey by the Rutgers University-based Center for the American Woman and Politics.
The women who Robb assembled had forceful personalities and creative ideas that many officials say helped change the government of a state with a reputation as a bastion of southern conservatism.
If his early appointments are any indication, Democratic Gov.-elect Gerald L. Baliles is expanding on Robb's record: Half of his cabinet is composed of women. Many of his appointees in state agencies held positions in the Robb administration.
In addition, one of Baliles' running mates, Attorney General-elect Mary Sue Terry, became the first woman to win statewide office in Virginia.
Robb said in an interview that his advocacy of women caused "a certain amount of uneasiness on the part of some people who supported me."
"But almost everyone would say that the commonwealth was not rent asunder by the appointment of a woman or a black or ethnic representative."
"Robb very definitely came to the forefront in appointing the ladies," agreed Sumpter T. Priddy Jr., president of the influential Virginia Retail Merchants Association and a top Richmond lobbyist.
"I never liked the men. I enjoy working with the ladies. But I would have preferred some to have more experience on the daily firing line with industry," Priddy said.
It was discussions of winning acceptance by the old-line Virginia establishment that dominated many of Lynda Robb's doe dinners.
"You still have the people who call you 'honey' and 'sweetie,' " said Robb Commissioner of Labor Eva S. Teig, who has been named Baliles' secretary of human resources. "The issue wasn't whether they called you 'sweetie,' but whether they did what you wanted them to do. You took care of the 'sweetie' as a side issue."
Teig knew how. In the midst of a heated debate over oil and gas policies, the chairman of the Virginia Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, angered that Teig would not retreat, snapped in a derogatory tone that she reminded him of his mother-in-law.
"I took him aside and I said: 'Don't ever pull that male chauvinist stuff on me again,' " Teig said.
Robb placed women in many traditionally male-dominated jobs. They put on old trousers and picked tomatoes with migrant workers to study conditions in labor camps on the Eastern Shore. They squeezed through gritty coal mine tunnels on inspection tours in Southwest Virginia. They stood nose to nose with male officials in Richmond who balked at taking orders from women.
Many women in Robb's top positions blamed some of their problems on inexperience.
"Women simply did not grow up as part of the system," said Carolyn Jefferson-Moss, a special assistant to Robb who has been promoted to secretary of administration by Baliles. "Consequently, you have to spend more time learning how to operate and how to use the system."
Moss said she and the other Robb appointees who are being named to jobs in the Baliles administration "will have an easier time" the second time around.
"A lot of the women and minorities involved for the first time felt that added pressure that they've got to outperform everybody else because they are the first," said Laurie Naismith, Robb's secretary of the commonwealth. "It was a lot of responsibility."
Robb conceded that some of his high-level women appointees "had a tougher time than others."
One of the most controversial was Secretary of Commerce and Resources Betty J. Diener, a firebrand with a doctorate from Harvard University who riled faculty members with her policy changes as a dean at Old Dominion University in Norfolk before joining the Robb administration.
Even Diener said of her appointment: "It was inconceivable to me they really would consider that controversial a person to that position. He wanted somebody who would be a mover and a shaker. He was willing to take that kind of risk with somebody."
"Betty Diener had some negatives," said Blaine Carter, a lobbyist for the Virginia Coal Association.
"A lot of people were taken aback a little bit by her style. She is not the typical Virginia lady," Carter said.
In Virginia, where Carter noted that women are sometimes "held to a different standard" that can be an unforgivable indictment among those who revere tradition and are slow to accept change.
Robb said he believes that his policies to promote women and minorities met with limited resistance because of his firm but cautious approach.
"I have come from a background that permits me not to have to be defensive," said Robb. "A number of others have grown up in a very different environment. I've always tried to respect those differences. If you insist on trying to assign blame or guilt, I don't think you move forward."
Lynda Robb, whose distaste for publicity sometimes obscured the role she played as first lady, said her husband frequently teased her over her repeated refrain when key positions opened: "You really need to find a good woman for that."
Robb said that four years of moving women into important government positions "hasn't raised the consciousness of everyone yet, but it will."
Other officials disagree.
Said state Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, a Fairfax County Democrat, "Some people in Richmond probably will never accept a woman."