NEW YORK — At dinner one night this week, Renee Cherow-O'Leary's 10-year-old daughter asked her a question.
"Mom," said the child, "what is your book all about?"
"Well," said O'Leary, author of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund's new "State by State Guide to Women's Legal Rights," "you know how you have a co-ed gym class? Well, when I was growing up, the girls had one team and the boys had another, and all we did on the girls' team was try to think of ways to get out of gym."
The enormity of changes in gym classes--for that matter, in education in general--in employment, education, home and family, in equal rights and for women in the community was what prompted O'Leary and the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund to draft what is at once a compendium of changes in the legal status of women and a guide to the rights women have on a state-by-state basis.
Couldn't Climb Poles
After all, as Legal Defense and Education Fund President Roxanne Conlin pointed out, it was less than 20 years ago that NOW was litigating so that women could be considered to be employed as telephone line workers.
"Because, of course," Conlin said, her voice dripping in irony, "everyone knew women could not climb poles in skirts."
Introduced at a luncheon here Wednesday, the 523-page book is published by McGraw-Hill Paperbacks and sells for $12.95. Quipped attorney Marsha Levick, executive director of NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, "This book is better than the American Express card. Don't leave home without it, sure, but also don't go home without it."
Or, as pioneer feminist writer Elizabeth Janeway said of the book she called a "facilitator" for women's legal rights, "This is like 'Our Bodies, Ourselves.' . . . We haven't come a long way, we've come a short way. If we hadn't come a short way, no one would be calling us 'baby.' "
Still, as Conlin noted, it was only 20 years ago that numerous professions were closed to women. Apparently adhering to an old tradition that women are bad luck in mines, for example, eight states had laws in 1967 prohibiting women from working in mines. Just as recently, women job applicants were routinely subjected to an almost mandatory battery of questions: Do you plan to be married? Will you have children? If you are married, what does your husband think of you taking this job?
"I was asked this question in 1977 when I was interviewed to become U.S. attorney for the southern district in Iowa," Conlin said. "I suggested they ask my husband what he thought."
Just two years ago, she said, Georgia changed the law that began its domestic relations code so it would no longer read that "the husband is the head of the family and the wife is subject to him."
Policy Changes Noted
Vast demographic shifts also have made for huge changes in domestic policy. Accordingly, the new book offers a state-by-state rating system of how the courts and legislatures of each state have responded to such issues as equal employment, equal pay, pay equity; education; abortion, child support, domestic violence, displaced homemakers, community property, joint custody; insurance, credit, public accommodations, housing.
Out of a total possible point rating of 64, it is Washington state, with 36, that ranks the highest. California earns 25 legal rights points, tying it for 14th place with North Carolina. Trailing in last place is South Carolina, allotted only six points.
But as Levick cautioned, "even the gold stars in almost every instance represent minimum accomplishments."
One immediate ramification of the book, Levick said, is the scheduling "sometime in the first half of the 100th Congress" by Reps. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) and Don Edwards (D-Calif.) of congressional hearings on women's legal rights.
O'Leary, a former English professor, said one of her primary objectives in writing the book was to "demystify the legal process for women."
Conlin, mother of four and a one-time Democratic candidate for governor of Iowa, stressed that the book is a "consumer guide" for women, whether or not they are experiencing particular legal problems.
She emphasized, for example, that "it's important for all women to recognize that all marriages, no matter how happy, end. And very often it is the female partner who is left with picking up the pieces."
Levick conceded that changes in the laws from state to state will prompt updates of both the book and the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund ratings guide. But "not to stop and take a picture of what had happened over 15 or 20 years was a mistake," she said. "This is a start, a start that puts us way ahead."