Five friends, professional black women from Ohio, arrived at the Mall for the Million Man March about 8:30 a.m. yesterday and saw so few other women that they quickly moved to the sidelines. Then it began to happen.

Black men gathering for what had been billed as a "holy day of atonement and reconciliation" in Washington repeatedly greeted the women with comments such as "Thank you for coming, sisters," and "We are doing this for you." The Ohio women moved into the heart of the crowd.

The greetings continued throughout the day, as a sea of black men -- police counted 400,000; organizers counted almost four times as many -- welcomed the sprinkling of wives, mothers, daughters and sisters who mingled among them to show support and to share in a historical event.

Women had been asked not to attend the march but to stay home praying and teaching their children about the values of self-esteem and family unity. Many women, judging by their small numbers in the crowd, complied with the request. Some of them met in local churches for prayer services and teach-ins, others, in much smaller numbers, greeted arriving marchers as buses dropped them at Metro stations.

Women attending the march ranged from teachers to students, homemakers to federal workers. Several said that they had attended the 1963 civil rights March on Washington as children and wanted to continue a legacy of activism. Some worked at the 18 voter-registration stands. Many, walking with their husbands and children, said they came because they saw the day as a time for family unity.

Others said the time had come for black men to show that they were willing to take more responsibility.

Charlita D. Anderson, one of the Ohio women and an assistant prosecuting attorney, said she wanted to see black men standing strong and dedicating themselves to taking more responsibility. She said many black women feel negative toward black men, especially when they do not support their families and their children. In the United States, 54 percent of black children are growing up in households headed by single women.

"I needed to do this for me," said Anderson, a single mother raising a 7-year-old son. "I look at this crowd, and I see hope. In the future, if I think of speaking negatively of his father, I'll stop . . . because I'll know that can rub off on him. I want my son to grow into a strong man."

Some women saw the march as a way to challenge stereotypes of black men, to witness the rally in order to pass on to black children firsthand accounts to counter what they say might be a distorted picture from the mainstream media. Women repeatedly said they fear that children have come to associate black men with crime. Some teenagers attending the march echoed that concern.

"When I heard about this march, I never thought it could happen because I didn't think black men could pull together," said Shalawn Mayfield, 16, of Silver Spring. "I begged my mother to let me come, and I feel like this is a dream come true. Men came here in peace."

Several women, including Betty Shabazz, widow of Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks, considered the mother of the modern civil rights movement, spoke briefly to the crowd. When Parks stood to speak, people chanted, "Rosa, Rosa, Rosa."

The women called for men and women to work as partners in dealing with social and economic problems. Similar themes sounded elsewhere in the city, where women who stayed away from the Mall found other ways to support the rally.

Like other small groups of women at Metro stations, Kimberly Burch, 24, of Greenbelt, Stephanie Hooks, 26, of Largo, and Nichelle Owens, 24, of Laurel, maintained their positions most of the day at the Addison Road Metro station in Prince George's County, where they had been greeting arriving marchers most of the day. At nightfall, they were still holding signs that said, "We're with You, Brothers" and "My brothers, We Love You."

About 400 women -- most wearing either African attire or Million Man March T-shirts -- had gathered by late morning at Union Temple Baptist Church in Anacostia for a rollicking, happy service of testimonials, African drums and songs. At times the singing was so spirited that the floor shuddered beneath the weight of stamping feet, and as the October sunlight poured through the clerestory windows, the smell of incense filled the air.

The sanctuary was consecrated with water and purified with fire, in African tradition, and as one speaker followed another to the pulpit, the theme was of support for the men downtown. No one spoke of feeling excluded.

"I've marched in many marches," said 71-year-old Mamie Wallace, a minister and activist. "With all these men down there, they don't need women. Women need to be here, praying for the men. {Women} aren't excluded at all. They have a job to do."

In nearly two hours of song, sermons and testimonials, the name of Louis Farrakhan was not mentioned from the pulpit -- and it came up only obliquely in the words of those attending. Several women spoke of their anger at the media, which they said had emphasized Farrakhan's role and in the process played down the spiritual significance of the march.

"Farrakhan is not the only minister in this," said church member Mary Hatcher, during a lull in the proceedings. "If the media could get to the real meaning of this, it would be helpful." CAPTION: Debbie Gullatee, left, and her mother, Allyce, take part in the service at Union Temple. Women had been asked not to attend the march. CAPTION: Fairbell Jenkins speaks during a service at Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast to honor the Million Man March.