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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW

Abby J. Leibman

An Advocate for Women and Girls Looks for a New Challenge

March 04, 2001|Molly Selvin | Molly Selvin is a Times editorial writer

Abby J. Leibman is kicking back these days. After 12 years of fighting the good fight on behalf of women and girls, she will soon step down as the executive director of the California Women's Law Center.

Leibman, 44, is one of the nonprofit center's founding directors and has been its most public face and passionate advocate. The center's mix of litigation, advocacy and education is unique in California.

Under her leadership, the law center has developed model sexual-harassment policies that have been adopted by government agencies and private firms; prodded the Los Angeles Police Department to address the gender bias within its force; compelled the state to issue regulations governing sexual harassment in schools and sex discrimination in sports; pushed local governments into establishing child-care options for women transitioning off welfare; and counseled women who have suffered discrimination at work or in obtaining medical care because they had breast cancer.

But come July, Leibman, who earned her law degree at UC Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, will leave to pursue new challenges, still undefined, and to spend more time with her two school-age children. Meanwhile, the 11-person law center, with an operating budget of $1.2 million, is searching for Leibman's replacement, someone who can "move it to the next plateau . . . as a significant leadership organization" nationally.

Although she has a reputation for being outspoken and impatient, Leibman can be disarmingly informal. The law center was born in 1989 after Leibman's stint at Public Counsel, where she directed a project on child-care law. She and her colleagues noticed the absence in Southern California of a one-stop center to go to for help with women's rights issues.

Her deep roots locally--Leibman grew up in Chatsworth--and a strong web of close friends and family have helped her cope with a wrenching family loss: Her twin sister, Nina Donney, was murdered by her estranged husband nearly six years ago, and Leibman has raised Nina's son and daughter ever since. When time permits, Leibman decompresses with movies and long walks.

Leibman was interviewed in the law center's offices near downtown.

*

Question: President George W. Bush says he wants to put children and families first. Many progressives and moderates say the same thing. If everyone wants the same goal, are there ways to accomplish it that everyone could agree with?

Answer: I'd like to think that when people use those words, they mean the same thing [but] I don't believe they do. There is a prism through which people look at what they think is best for others that is framed by their own experience. And that often means a goal that isn't consistent with what others would see as what's in the best interests of a community or the country.

Q: In Bush's case?

A: There is a layer of morality [in] the current administration that was made most visible by the [White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives] and some comments the president made in creating [it]. For many people, the notion that morality and organized religion are the sole ways in which to elevate families is anathema. That is not what the United States is about. . . . There is a tremendous fear that the relationship and the links drawn between religion, government and family will result in the control of women.

Q: In what ways?

A: There will be a lot of pressure encouraging teenagers to choose to birth babies rather than seek abortions. There will be places where women will be incapable of making a choice about their family planning, either because they can't get access to emergency contraception or they can't get access to contraceptives. Or they can't get an abortion because they simply cannot find a provider, because all the health care in their community is being run by faith-based institutions that don't believe in that. That clearly limits our choices. That feeds back into discussions about the size of your family, your ability to economically support that family and your own personal life and future.

Q: Have you changed the center's focus because of your experiences as a parent?

A: We try really hard not to extrapolate from our own anecdotal experience, but we may use it as the catalyst for investigating something we might not have perceived. . . . The most recent example is a project we call Murder at Home. My sister's murder was the inspiration for this project, but we didn't undertake it until it became clear to us that her experience was not unique. It's an exploration of the way the media treat the murders of women by their intimate partners, and the way the criminal justice system treats them. Some of our hypotheses and assumptions are that these murders are treated differently from those between strangers. Without placing any value judgment on that, it provides an opportunity for us to present a case study to the justice system and to the media to say, at least you ought to be aware that you're doing this.

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