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.
Say the words woman and lawyer , and the image of Leslie Abramson, the sharp and maternally tender Menendez defender, is instantly summoned. Or perhaps that of O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark.
Say women’s rights lawyer and it’s Gloria Allred, master of sound bites and class-action suits.
But in less-watched circles, another name is synonymous with women’s causes: Abby J. Leibman, a self-described “not yet an A-string player.”
Co-founder and executive director of the California Women’s Law Center, Leibman advocates reform on a panoply of women’s issues, from child care to child custody, domestic violence to discrimination. Her field of battle is rarely the courtroom, but rather the hearing rooms, committee rooms and conference rooms where public policy is written. Her clients tend to be women in the generic: immigrant women, disabled women, battered women.
The Simpson case media frenzy is at a full boil when Leibman calls a news conference at her mid-Wilshire offices to announce the establishment of the Battered Truth hot line. Wearing a courtroom-blue dress and speaking at a fast clip without notes, she attacks the myths surrounding domestic violence:
“We’ve begun to hear comments in the public and repeated in the press about whether or not women ask for it. . . . We don’t ask this when we have stranger-to-stranger violence,” she says with disgust. “We don’t ask (if) I am walking down the street, (whether) it is my fault somebody hits me over the head with a baseball bat. But if that someone happened to be my husband, then suddenly we begin to ask, ‘Was I inviting this kind of behavior?’ It is no more valid in this context than it is in any other felonious assault.”
After the news conference ends, Leibman announces to the assembly of activists, reporters and photographers that she has work to do and retreats to her office, leaving the lint of informational details to her colleagues.
That determination to get where she’s going quickly sometimes translates to brusqueness. Even her closest colleagues say so. And Leibman concedes: “I am impatient.”
Still, she is known for forging collaboration, not only within her immediate circle, but also among the scores of public officials, activists and lawyers whose interests intersect her own. Women’s groups, community groups, civil rights organizations, anti-poverty alliances and even the occasional individual call upon the 5-year-old, five-person law center, seeking information, technical assistance--justice.
“Her work is impacting a lot of women,” says Katherine Spillar, national coordinator of Feminist Majority Foundation, which is working with the NAACP and the law center to achieve gender balance in the Los Angeles Police Department, among other reforms. “She’s hard-working, result-oriented and no frills. ‘Let’s get this done and move on.’ ”
As the 37-year-old Leibman tells it, sitting in her windowless office decorated with diplomas and Georgia O’Keeffe’s poppy poster, the idea for the nonprofit law center dawned over dinner at Stratton’s Grill in Westwood.
At the time, Leibman was running the Child Care Law Project at the public-interest law firm Public Counsel, where her work involved easing zoning restrictions on “family day care” to create more spaces for children. Across the table was Jenifer McKenna, then executive director of the Los Angeles Women’s Bar Assn.
The two were commiserating, Leibman recalls, about the lack of a centralized place in Southern California to go for help with women’s rights issues, such as the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C., or Equal Rights Advocates in the Bay Area.
“So, we looked at each other and (I) said, ‘Someone should really open a woman’s law center here .’ And we thought, ‘if we don’t do it, nobody will.’ ”
Within weeks, a dozen or so women were gathered in Leibman’s living room to brainstorm and to volunteer for such tasks as raising money and filing incorporation papers.
A year later, Leibman quit her job and opened a large one-room office in Santa Monica. “We partitioned (it) off so we could live,” says former managing partner Sheila James Kuehl, an attorney who recently won the Democratic primary for the 41st Assembly District seat. “Abby had always wanted a private office where she could close the door.” Soon, McKenna joined them.
Today, the center, built on private donations, has a nearly $400,000 annual budget and receives funds from individuals, corporations, law firms and such charitable groups as the James Irvine and Ford foundations.
It works the way Leibman, who draws a salary of about $65,000, envisioned it--as a shepherd of big issues. “We wanted to look much more comprehensively at women’s civil rights,” she says, “the notion being that the issues all related to one another, and it’s difficult to pull one away from the other.”
At the core, she says, is “the feminization of poverty”: Without decent child care, a woman can’t work or go to school. Without access to training or education, she can’t get a good job. Without a good job or other economic means of escape, she might stay in an abusive relationship.
Leibman and her colleagues “use traditional legal skills in very non-traditional ways” to help such women. In many cases, that means working to change laws--"to stop the problem before it is created,” Leibman says.
“She’s a very effective lobbyist,” says Wendy Grueul, a former City Hall staffer who worked with Leibman on Los Angeles’ family day-care ordinance. “When you first meet Abby, you wouldn’t necessarily think she’ll knock your socks off, but she will.”
“She has a precision mind,” says Pat Towner, executive director of the California Commission on the Status of Women. "(It’s) a missile on target.”
How did this Valley girl from an “upper-middle-class, white, privileged” background become what she describes as a “raging feminist”?
She grew up in a large corner house in then-bucolic Chatsworth, the eldest daughter, along with a twin, of Joan and Michael Leibman. Her mother was a former chairwoman of the English department at Walter Reed Junior High School in North Hollywood. Her father, an aeronautics engineer, worked on guidance-and-control systems for lunar landings and missiles.
Abby’s twin, Nina Leibman Donney, a college teacher of film and communications, believes it was she who set a feminist example by using Ms. , and not saying girl , while at Chatsworth High in the ‘70s . “Quite likely,” Abby agrees.
But the Leibman sisters--a third, Marjorie Shaw, serves in the Peace Corps in Senegal--point to their working mother and grandmothers, one of whom taught education at Brooklyn College and marched for the women’s right to vote, as strong role models.
“One of the first political names I ever heard was (Senate candidate) Helen Gahagan Douglas,” Abby says. “My mother said to me, ‘I don’t care what you girls ever do, don’t ever forget her name. This is a wonderful woman, and Richard Nixon smeared her.’ ”
One unhappy childhood experience may have fueled what Joan Leibman describes as her daughter’s “passion for justice.” When she became active in the Jewish Federation Council in the early ‘80s, Leibman remembers being asked to describe her worst experience as a Jew:
“I was the only Jewish kid in my (third-grade) class,” Leibman says. “My mom split me and Nina so we didn’t have to compete. My teacher had me tell about Hanukkah, and (another girl) had to talk about Christmas. And she gets up, 8 years old, and (says) all the Jews and infidels are going to burn in hell.
“And I remember sitting there thinking, ‘I should say something.’ The teacher took me out in the hall, ‘You know (she) really doesn’t know what she’s saying. She’s heard what her parents said. . . .’ She knows what she’s saying. I thought it was peculiar the teacher would say this to me but not the class.”
Leibman went on to graduate magna cum laude from UC San Diego. She considered a career as a doctor or medical researcher, but didn’t like the idea of choosing a specialty. “I always had a good aptitude for math and an interest in science, but I’m much more macro level.”
What ultimately led her to the law, she says, was another gift: “I always liked to talk, I was a good talker, and one of the things that appealed to me about law school was I could use that as a skill, as opposed to (it) being something that was detrimental.”
She got her degree from Hastings College of Law at UC San Francisco in 1981, but a job in a large firm eluded her. “I watched my classmates who had grades that were poorer than mine getting offers,” she says. “It took hindsight to really look at this and say it had to do with the fact that I was female.”
McKenna suggests that others felt the same way. “Women of Abby’s generation, our generation, grew up with a sense of entitlement that was slightly ahead of what our opportunities really were. We confronted a wall that was still there as we were coming of age.”
In her last year of law school and briefly after graduation, Leibman worked for the county government and was faced with fending off a physically aggressive, ranking co-worker. She was upset, she says, but did nothing.
“Finally, I was on the phone with a staff person from the House Budget Committee, and this man came into my area, a cubicle, and he kissed me. He tried to kiss me on the mouth, but I turned my head so it hit me right here,” she says, touching her left cheek. “I was really freaked out.”
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.
“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 sexual harassment 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.
"(Gov. Pete Wilson) did grant clemency to a couple of women,” Leibman says, “and now the rest of those petitions are sitting on his desk.”
Ikemi says they are exploring other strategies for battered women serving murder sentences, such as writs of habeas corpus. “The whole area is up in the air until after the (state) election because you never know how a different governor might react,” she says.
With such a heavy agenda, time is precious. Leibman’s two-bedroom condo, with a spectacular view of Downtown from the bedroom window, is a short drive to the office. And although she loves movies and murder mysteries and baking chocolate chip cookies, her weekends sometimes give way to business.
She’s a member of the Saturday Group, made up of a dozen or so baby-boom political and media insiders who meet every six weeks to discuss such big-picture issues as California’s economy or crime. John Emerson, a former chief deputy city attorney who is now an aide to President Clinton, invited Leibman to join.
She has also spent three weekends in Palm Springs this summer with work-related friends. The escapes began with what has become a kind of political “Big Chill"--an annual Memorial Day gathering thrown by Grueul, now a deputy to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry G. Cisneros, at her parents’ condo.
A doting aunt, Leibman thinks she might like to have children someday. As for marriage, she says, “I haven’t thought of this as a closed book yet. . . . If I’m in a relationship and it feels right to have children, then I will have children with that man. It doesn’t have to be the big ‘M.’ It could be whatever is a committed intimate relationship with a man. I don’t want to be a single parent.”
Leibman’s five-year plan is to stick with her work--and to do more of it.
“I want to still be doing the kinds of work that I’m doing now, and I don’t know if I’ll still be at the law center. I know what I want the law center to be . . . certainly much bigger. I also would love for it to have branch offices, like in San Diego, in the middle part of the state and also in the Bay Area.”
And after that, she talks about maybe going to Washington--if family responsibilities don’t prevent it.
As a congresswoman perhaps?
She smiles. “Not run for Congress. I want someone to say, ‘ Here. Here’s a congressional district, it’s yours.’ The campaigning part doesn’t appeal to me in the least.”
Abby J. Leibman
Native?: No. Born in New York, raised in Chatsworth, now lives in Los Angeles.
Marital status: Single.
Passions: Anything chocolate, her 5-year-old nephew and 3-year-old niece, murder mysteries, the law.
On women and welfare: “We’re committed to doing a solid educational effort about who is on welfare and why, because we think there is a mythology around the idea that women either choose to do this or that these women are somehow alien from the rest of us.”
On being a feminist: “Because I believe that women are the colleagues of men, that I am not less than, I am not greater than, I am working very hard to make sure that both men and women realize that.”
On sexual harassment versus free speech: “I think that the First Amendment should not and does not protect sexual harassment. Whether or not the courts will ever agree with me on this remains to be seen. If what you’re doing is hurting people, that is not protected speech.”
On growing up with a twin: "(It’s) an interesting mix of having a constant companion, and you always have somebody there who’s your friend. And then also this notion that you have never been, you’re never separate, you’re never alone.”