On TV's top-rated show, "ER," women have some of the strongest roles on television today.

Now, there's no doubt that Anthony Edwards and George Clooney are the stars of the show. But the female characters that surround Dr. Greene and Dr. Ross are hardly shrinking violets.This season, Dr. Carrie Weaver (Laura Innes) is in charge of the emergency ward. And nurse Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies) has come a long way since she attempted suicide in the series' first episode - she's now forceful and independent.

The wimpiest woman on the show, Dr. Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield), left the show last season. And the two new female characters don't whine and moan the way she used to.

"One of the reasons why I was really interested in this role was because the writers and producers at `ER' were interested in creating, not just a woman on the side, but a good doctor," said Maria Bello, who plays Dr. Anna Del Amico. "And I think that's the main thing about my character. I'm a pediatrician, I studied at one of the best medical-training facilities in the country, and I'm an over-achiev-er. . . . I have a really clear vision of the way I want to practice medicine and what it means to me and my mission in it."

The same could be said of Alex Kingston and her character, Dr. Elizabeth Corday. A proficient surgeon, Corday came to Chicago from England - which might not be as strange as it sounds.

"It's not a particularly unusual circumstance, as we discovered when we did the research," said executive producer John Wells. "We were afraid we were going to have to contort something out of shape to make it happen."

But what the writers discovered is that many British doctors are anxious to get their "BTAs" - their "been to Americas." And that's "in large part because one of the sad commentaries on our society is it's very difficult to get a lot of trauma training in England because you don't have many gunshot wounds or violent injuries, and so trauma surgeons from all over the world come here to train because it's like a battlefield," Wells said.

"But, likewise, one of the sad things about Britain is that there are very few female surgeons," said the very British Kingston. "It's still, by and large, an old-boys' network. And so, for a woman, she would have a greater opportunity working in surgery in the States because women are so much more common."

Kingston said that, while researching her role in England, she was "really only with male surgeons." And that female surgeons there "have to be just bigger, greater than they normally might have to be."

"The male surgeons that I was researching with admitted to me that if there's a woman who they're working with they wait for that woman to make just the smallest, most insignificant mistake and they will just hound her with that mistake because she's a woman," she said. "So I think that, certainly, the character that I'm going to try to create is going to be somebody who is strong enough to be able to take that kind of flak from people, but also who won't deny the fact that she is a woman."

Which is also a good balance the writers of "ER" have struck - their female characters aren't considered strong because they act just like men.

"I don't think that a strong woman is necessarily someone who's tough on the outside or has a loud voice," Bello said. "When I talk about a strong woman, I talk about someone who's complicated, like I would talk about a strong man. . . . And, luckily, we have creators and writers on our show that write these kinds of complicated characters to interact with each other like we do in real life."

Both Kingston and Bello said they feel lucky to be on "ER" because of the characters they play.

"I think that we need more women's roles, especially on television, that are like this," Bello said.

LIVING WITH HIV: Another of "ER's" female characters, Jeannie Boulet (Gloria Reuben), pretty much has to be strong - she's living with the AIDS virus.

And that's the functional point for this character - she's living with HIV.

"One of the things we wanted to do with the story line - and we were very excited about - was the notion that HIV is not now a death sentence," Wells said. "And to show characters who are living their lives and trying to find their way through this difficult thing that they're having to live with, and yet not show it in a way that we've always seen in before."

In other words, not show characters who were on the fast-track to an early death.

On "ER," both Jeannie and her husband, Al (Michael Beach), are doing quite well on the so-called "cocktail" of various drugs used in combination to fight HIV. Wells and his team of writers are aware that not all AIDS patients respond as well (they have five doctors as consultants), but don't expect to see Jeannie take a turn for the worse anytime soon.

"We have resisted telling some of the other stories because we're afraid that it will undercut some of that message that we're trying to send," Wells said. All bets are off, however, if the real-life battle with AIDS takes a turn for the worse.

"I think what's more likely to happen is if something substantially (wrong) happens in the ongoing story that is now dealing with HIV and AIDS and drug therapies, that's going to be reflected in the show," Wells said.

NO BIG DEAL FOR "ER": Last spring, at the same time that Ellen DeGeneres was drawing massive media attention because her character on "Ellen" was declaring her lesbianism, "ER" rather quietly had a similar "outing." Recurring character Maggie Doyle (Jorjan Fox) revealed her sexual orientation to John Carter (Noah Wyle).

"I am happy to report that there was absolutely no response to that storyline," Wells said. "We were attempting to simply present it as a fact of life."

Not that he has any criticism of DeGeneres or of "Ellen."

"I actually was a big fan of that episode of `Ellen.' I thought it was a wonderful episode and they did a beautiful job," Wells said. "But to me it was a little bit of a tempest in a teapot

"I mean, it's a wonderful thing to have happen and, at the same time, it's remarkable to me that it was a big story in 1997 that a lead character on television would be gay. . . . I would hope that that having happened, it's now a non-event and it's just one more element of character development if someone happens to be gay - that it's not what defines them as a character."

And, actually, since Maggie "came out," her lifestyle has barely been mentioned. (Except when Carter imagined that Doyle was favoring a female doctor over him.)

"She is a doctor and a character who we like who just happens to be gay," Wells said. "It doesn't make her unusual in any way within the hospital environment."