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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : A Woman's Place : She's an influential attorney, but you won't find her on Court TV. Instead, Abby J. Leibman of the California Women's Law Center tries to do her gender justice in the back rooms of government.

August 21, 1994|JUDITH MICHAELSON

Leibman went to her supervisor, who advised her to put up a sign saying that sexual harassment would not be tolerated. But, Leibman says, "I didn't do anything. . . . Here I was a lawyer already, and a raging feminist, and I couldn't do anything. . . ." Even so, the harassment soon ended. "I am eternally grateful to (that supervisor)," she says, "because she had taken care of it."

Two jobs later, Leibman was monitoring job advancement for women on the Los Angeles Unified School District's Commission for Sex Equity. Her work there, she says, made her recognize the importance of quality child care to working women and eventually led to the Child Care Law Project at Public Counsel.

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"If I had really thought about what I was doing," Leibman says of launching the law center, "I would have really have gotten overwhelmed. Just think about it one little step at a time, and you can do it. You just keep your goals manageable."

She has used that incremental approach to chip away at such problems as discrimination.

In 1984, Leibman and Phyllis Cheng, her former boss at the LAUSD, formed the California Equity Council. Along with a team of experts, they drafted model regulations for compliance with the 1982 state law banning sex discrimination in education. The council eventually disbanded for lack of funds, but Leibman would later press the issue, making it the law center's first "case."

"The original state regulations were a joke," Leibman says, "virtually a repetition of the prohibition against discrimination, nothing more than that. No detail, no guidance, no specificity at all about what schools and school districts were responsible for and what students could count on."

After written and oral testimony, the education department in 1993 adopted a set of considerably more comprehensive guidelines.

But Leibman is not satisfied. While the state's rules apply to courses and athletics, she says, they don't address sexual harassment or extracurricular activities.

"Right now, school districts have no guidance on what the definition of \o7 sexual harassment \f7 means, how it should be applied, what their liability is, what to do if there is a sexual harassment incident. The same is true of extracurricular. . . . Is it OK to say that in order to be part of the Math Club you have to have taken calculus? But what if we happen to see that only boys take calculus?"

This summer, the law center will go to court for the first time as a plaintiff in a suit against state education officials to compel them to comply with the law.

But the law center rarely uses the courtroom. Instead, Leibman and her colleagues--Roberta Ikemi and Susan Berke Fogel--write briefs, testify at hearings, run meetings and lobby.

On a recent afternoon, Leibman gets four minutes to make a case to a police commission subcommittee for having an independent civilian unit investigate racial and sexual harassment complaints within the LAPD. She uses only 2 1/2, arguing that departmental loyalty has its downside. "To report to those who may share some allegiance to the person whom you are accusing can be an enormous chilling factor," Leibman says.

On another afternoon, she meets with a dozen core members of the Women's Coalition, organized by Leibman in the aftermath of the 1992 civil unrest. Encompassing more than 70 Los Angeles groups--from Parents of Watts to Mothers of East L.A. to the Junior League to the American Jewish Congress, on whose regional council she sits--the coalition issued an 80-page "Blueprint" in March for rebuilding the city. Now, the members are trying to pare down the 76-item list to a more manageable two dozen. "If you don't even raise (the rest)," Leibman says later, "they will never get (dealt with) or be part of anybody's consciousness."

Her ability to manage such complex issues has made Leibman an important sounding board for public officials.

"She's aggressive without being offensive--without taking 'no' for an answer, without being in your face. But mostly she's very knowledgeable," says City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who has known Leibman since 1983. "If you ask, 'How do you think we could approach this?' or 'How do other people do it?' she's done her homework, and that's very impressive to someone who has as much on their plate as a city council or school board member."

Meanwhile, Fogel monitors zoning ordinances for family day care in much of Southern California and is also working with Loyola Law School to set up a legal clinic for breast cancer patients. Ikemi specializes in welfare reform and domestic violence.

On the latter front, the center has helped push state laws for courts to issue restraining orders around the clock and for judges to take domestic abuse into account when deciding custody cases. It has also supported clemency petitions, arguing "battered women's syndrome," for women who killed their abusers.

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