Washington, D.C. — ''I can get more business done at one of their meetings than I can in a week on the phone,'' says Susan Hager, co-owner of a local public relations firm and treasurer of the Washington Women's Network, whose meetings she uses to find clients. With 2,800 members, the Network is one of the larger and more influential of hundreds of ''old-girl systems'' set up across the country.
Built on the tradition of women's groups like the League of Women Voters and the American Association of University Women, the networks range from a kind of one-gender trade association like New York's Women's Media Group to small, informal structures like the Republican women at the Federal Trade Commission who get together occasionally for lunch.
Some networks restrict their members. New York's exclusive Women's Forum is open to only 100 of the prominent and powerful. Others, like Washington Women's Network, are open to all.
Most of these networks sprang up after the 1977 National Women's Conference in Houston. There, cards and phone numbers were exchanged in multiple numbers, and ''people realized how valuable that contact with other women was,'' says one participant.
Many of those who founded the Washington Women's Network in 1978 ''participated in Houston,'' says Ms. Hager, ''but I don't think that was the only impetus.'' What they tried to create, she believes, was ''an easy way to meet women you wouldn't normally meet, so you could do business and move on without too much hassle.''
She describes the organization's meetings - dinners, luncheons, discussions, seminars, and receptions held once or twice a month - as opportunities for members to ''work the crowd. Most of them are not at all shy about meeting and greeting, finding out if they have anything in common, doing business if possible, and then moving along.''
The $25 yearly membership includes monthly mailings that describe job openings and relevant meetings of other organizations. But ''this is not a job-referral service,'' Ms. Hager quickly adds. ''Meeting someone doesn't give them the license to call me the next morning and ask for a job.''
In this and many other ways, Ms. Hager believes, women's networks differ significantly from their male counterparts. ''You can't look in the phone book and find a Washington Men's Network,'' she says. ''It's much more subtle.
''Men are more polished about working the system,'' she contends. ''I've seen men raise $1,000 for their favorite cause in less than a minute - it's not even discussed. Or jobs for their sons -- all they have to say is, 'My son is interested in your firm.' Women trip over things like whether or not the son is the most qualified applicant,'' she says.
''But basically,'' she says, ''the reason we cannot work it as easily as men is that we don't have the power. We don't have jobs to give away, sight unseen. We don't have spare money.''
What women like Susan Hager do have is ''a very loose organization'' to help them establish themselves.She has used it to pick up, not only clients, but potential employees and valuable contacts in other areas.
''These women may not have the power, but they are plugged into where the men are and they can open some doors for each other,'' Ms. Hager says.
Perhaps more important, she says, is the role the Network plays in ''supporting successful women.'' Women who are at or near the top of their professions are still very much in the minority and are often feeling their way in the dark, she points out.
Some women's networks -- like the distinctive Women's Forum in New York, whose members include Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, Bess Myerson, and Barbara Walters, among others -- exist almost entirely for the purpose of giving these women a comfortable atmosphere in which to talk with their peers.
''I think this kind of thing is needed,'' says Ms. Hager, who dismisses charges that networks like the Women's Forum are elitist in the same way as their male counterparts. ''You need to be with your peers, to get some input on a level that makes a difference to you,'' she says.
Through the Network, Ms. Hager has found much in common with women who have reached the same level on different career ladders. ''It's so nice to learn you're not alone,'' she says.
Sharing camaraderie and support may be the most important function of all women's networks, some say. For, despite all the wheeling and dealing going on in these groups' meetings, some doubts remain about whether networks are actually promoting women. All three of the top women in the Reagan administration apparently got their jobs through the ''old boy's network.'' For example: Sandra Day O'Connor received a political nudge from her old law-school classmate, Justice William Rehnquist; Jeane Kirkpatrick was boosted by her conservative colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute; and Elizabeth Dole's marriage to Republican Sen. Robert Dole helped her application for the White House Public Liason Office.
''OK, nobody's calling the Washington Women's Network and asking for names of employees,'' Ms. Hager admits. ''The organization doesn't have any clout. But people within the organization have clout,'' she says, ''and that's what matters.''