When it came time for Lillian Garland to have her baby, she had no intention of making a federal case out of it. She just wanted to take disability leave from her $850-a-month job at a receptionist's desk in a Los Angeles bank and return to work when she was fit again. On Feb. 12, 1982 her daughter, Kekere, was delivered by cesarean section, and on April 20 Garland notified her personnel office she was ready to go back. The response, she says, chilled her. "I was told 'We hired the person you trained,' " she recounts. "I was in shock. I said, 'What am I supposed to do now?' They said, 'You can go look for a job. In the meantime if something becomes available, we'll give you a call.' "

In refusing to accept that answer, Garland became the focal point of a four-year legal struggle that will soon wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court. Garland's employers, the California Federal Savings and Loan Association, hope to persuade the justices that a California law requiring them to reinstate her to the same or a similar job after maternity leave is unconstitutional. The ruling could have far-reaching effects for the millions of U.S. women seeking to balance children and careers. Two federal laws require employers to treat pregnancy just like any other medical disability. But California's 1978 Fair Employment and Housing Act goes even further, mandating up to four months' leave and effectively ensuring that women don't lose their jobs. Cal Fed claims the state law denies equal treatment to men, who can lose their jobs because of medical disability. California replies that it's working women who stand to suffer discrimination.

Garland, who says she is in her 30s, moved to L.A. from Pittsburgh in 1976 hoping to become an actress. She went to work for Cal Fed in 1978. "I loved my job," she says. "I was the most happy person." Her supervisors rated her job performance "above average." But the bank's brush-off added to a series of misfortunes for Lillian. First, Kekere's father (they were not married) moved out of their $550-a-month apartment in L.A.'s Baldwin Hills section. Though he took the baby every other weekend and bought diapers and baby food, Garland had to take Kekere with her on visits to job agencies and prospective employers. "I couldn't afford a babysitter," she says. "They could see how desperately I needed the job because I'm here with my child in my arms. There were times during the course of my struggles that I was hungry and I would eat the baby food." Unable to pay the rent, she had to move in with a girlfriend. Then she gave up custody of Kekere to the girl's father because she could no longer provide housing.

Cal Fed had been offering Lillian other jobs since June 1982, but she says the positions were unsuitable—requiring Garland to make long bus commutes or calling for typing skills she did not have. Finally, in November 1982, Cal Fed came up with another receptionist position at her old salary, and Garland gladly accepted. She has since received raises and promotions.

Those factors however have not altered the court case in which Cal Fed is joined by the Merchants and Manufacturers Association and the California Chamber of Commerce as plaintiffs. Feminists have split over the issue with some arguing that equality means women must go by the same rules as men, while others believe that women are denied equal opportunity when they don't get special consideration for their childbearing role. The American Civil Liberties Union, the National Organization for Women and the League of Women Voters have all lined up with the Reagan Administration on the side of Cal Fed. California Deputy Attorney General Marian M. Johnston will argue the state's case before the Supreme Court for special treatment of maternity leave claimants. "There is a type of discrimination which occurs when equal opportunity is denied even though everybody is being treated equally," she says. "It's a fact of life that only women become pregnant and that pregnancy causes a disability. If the workplace doesn't take that into account, women are going to be losing their jobs because they become pregnant."

Now married to realtor Curtis Troupe, Garland says she hopes to regain custody of Kekere. If the Supreme Court upholds California's law, Cal Fed could be required to pay Garland back wages. "I think it's unfair for any woman to have to worry about not having a job because she's doing a job that God put her here to do," Garland says, "because she's reproducing, repopulating our society." The Supreme Court's unenviable task is to draw a fine balance between two highly esteemed institutions, Motherhood and the Law.

  • Contributors:
  • Ron LaBrecque.