Women running for U.S. Senate and House seats this year are leading or keeping pace with their male counterparts in raising funds, apparently overcoming what some female candidates have viewed as one of the largest barriers facing them in the political arena.

Many political strategists and fund-raisers said that potential contributors in this year's races are more likely to consider incumbency, ideology and political connections than sex when deciding whether to give money to women running for Congress.

"I would say I feel that women can raise as much money as men when they are running in comparable situations, and that is an improvement," said Lt. Gov. Harriett Woods of Missouri. A Democrat running for an open Senate seat, Woods has raised $1.2 million, $200,000 less than the amount raised by her GOP opponent, former governor Christopher S. Bond.

Woods' assessment has changed markedly since 1982, when she lost a close race to an influential and wealthy incumbent, GOP Sen. John Danforth, after canceling television advertisements in the final weeks of the campaign because her treasury was exhausted.

Even with women's gains such as these, however, political strategists caution that recent progress must be balanced with the facts that the number of women on Capitol Hill remains small and that the key to raising money -- for men and women -- usually is incumbency.

Although more women are serving in Congress than ever, they hold 4.7 percent of the House and Senate overall, or 25 of the 535 seats.

"I think the key here is that women are basically challengers . . . . It's not a sex issue as much as an insider versus outsider issue," said Roger Craver, a Democratic direct-mail specialist. "The PAC political action committee system works against challengers."

But, he said, once women become incumbents, the odds shift dramatically in their favor.

Although not all women politicians agree that raising funds has become easier, a 1984 study by the Women's Campaign Fund, a nonpartisan group that counsels women on raising funds, indicates that women have made significant strides.

The study found that the average amount raised by the 54 Democratic and Republican women House candidates in the general election in 1976 was 67 percent of the average amount raised by men. But by 1982, 55 women House candidates raised on average 93 percent of the total raised by their male opponents.

In a similar study of 1984 House races being completed by Barbara Burrell, a political science professor at Boston University, Democratic and Republican women challengers and those running for open seats raised more money on average than their male counterparts.

Strategists cite several reasons for the improvement overall: More women are running as incumbents and are able to take advantage of the power associated with being in office; traditional donors, including political action committees and businesses, are more generous to women candidates than ever before, and women candidates and activists have become more aggressive about soliciting contributions.

The vice presidential campaign of then-Democratic Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro has played a role, according to political strategists for the two parties, by energizing a network of professional women who traditionally had shied away from making political contributions.

But, clearly, being an incumbent or being in a position of influence is the biggest boost.

This year, for example, Rep. Lynn Martin (R-Ill.) has easily raised more money than her male challenger, in part because she is a ranking member of the House leadership. Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Barbara Kennelly (D-Conn.), although low-ranking members of the Budget and Ways and Means committees respectively, are two-term incumbents who have raised far more money than their opponents this year.

Rep. Barbara A. Mikulski, who is running for the U.S. Senate in Maryland and had received $300,586 in contributions by March 31, is even in raising funds with her chief rival in the race, Rep. Michael D. Barnes, and she leads Gov. Harry Hughes.

Although Mikulski has served in Congress for one more term than has Barnes, he heads the powerful Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs and has achieved national recognition as a result. Nonetheless, Mikulski has raised considerable amounts of money from labor PACs and other groups with which she worked closely during her 10 years in the House.

Mikulski also has been an outspoken advocate of women's causes and has raised about 20 percent of her money from women's groups.

Similarly, in the race for the Republican nomination in Maryland, Senate candidate and former White House aide Linda Chavez, who has never held elective office, had received $108,822 in contributions by March 31, more than her less-known opponent, businessman Richard Sullivan, also a campaign novice.

For women candidates, the big push to go after professional women for money began after the Woods defeat, when Democratic activist Ellen Malcolm formed EMILY's List -- Early Money Is Like Yeast -- a network of more than 1,000 professional women.

Still in its infancy, EMILY's List will account for only a small percentage of the money raised by female candidates this year. EMILY's List members have given about $176,000, evenly split between Woods and Mikulski. Most of the contributions have been about $200; the maximum allowed under federal election laws is $1,000.

Other women are also trying to expand the number of women contributors along the lines of "old boy" networks that for years have united men in politics, law and business.

For example, Lynn Cutler, vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Betty Heitman, her counterpart at the Republican National Committee, organized a boat ride up the Mississippi River this spring for 40 women politicians and 230 professional women.

Women have "never understood what a hardball game it is," said Celinda Lake, candidate services director for the Women's Campaign Fund. Political action committees "are willing to give money, but in return, they want access . . . . Somehow this was distasteful" to women who came through traditional women's organizations, such as the League of Women Voters and other volunteer or civic groups.

"It took a while for women to feel comfortable even setting up those meetings with PACs , to feel that they weren't selling out," said Stephanie Solien, director of the Women's Campaign Fund.

"Money is what makes a candidate viable," said Solien. "Women are getting better at it . . . . I feel we have made some major strides forward."