As D.C. Council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8) sees it, the Right to Pregnancy Leave Amendment Act was a good, simple idea that would have been an enormous help to the District's working mothers.

But instead of celebrating its passage this fall, Rolark is lamenting the council's vote to table the measure indefinitely.

"We could have had this now, and worked on the rest," Rolark said. She said support was undermined by the fears of potential hardship voiced by local businesses, as well as the testimony of feminist groups that urged a more expansive leave law.

But according to Sylvia Becker of the Women's Legal Defense Fund, special treatment for pregnant women is a ticklish legal issue that also raises the possibility of employment discrimination against women of childbearing age by employers averse to providing disability or unpaid leave.

"We think the council should be applauded for addressing this," Becker said. "It's just a different perspective on the same issue. Everyone is trying to make it better for working women."

Early on, the bill seemed destined for passage. When Rolark introduced it in January, 11 of her 12 colleagues signed on as cosponsors. Just one week earlier, the Supreme Court had upheld a similar California law guaranteeing unpaid leave to pregnant employes.

But the bill underwent significant expansion by the D.C. Council's Committee on Public Services. A provision for a maximum four months of unpaid leave was changed to a four-month minimum. Leave for adoption was included. Fathers were also counted in, and so the Right to Pregnancy Leave was changed to the Right to Family Leave, which was tabled last month by an 8-to-5 vote.

"I took that defeat really hard," Rolark said. "I thought that would have been a real boon for the District, particularly in Ward 8, where there are so many single women heading households."

During the council debate, Rolark implored her colleagues to pass the bill, which she said is "very, very long overdue. We are in the business of supporting the family, which is in dire need at this particular time."

Frank Smith (D-Ward 1), chairman of the Public Services Committee, was equally forceful, pointing out that the Supreme Court ruling gave the bill immediate legitimacy. Council members John Ray (D-At Large), Jim Nathanson (D-Ward 3) and Hilda Mason (Statehood-At Large) voted against tabling the bill, arguing that through discussion and amendments, at least part of it could be salvaged.

The committee held the bill's public hearing in May. Maudine Cooper, director of the D.C. Office on Human Rights, urged the council to study potential harm to the city's small businesses, but concluded, "The executive branch gives full support to the scope of protection that {the bill} will provide to women in the work force."

Diane Flanagan-Montgomery, representing the D.C. Commission for Women, testified that women represent 44 percent of the national work force, but 61 percent of workers in D.C. In addition, she noted that 70 percent of D.C. women ages 25 to 54 work outside the home.

But her testimony, like that of other feminist groups, called for a more far-reaching bill than that considered by the council. It urged that leave be granted for employes to care for a sick spouse or immediate family member.

Currently, committees in both houses of Congress are considering family-leave bills.

At issue in the January Supreme Court ruling was a California law requiring businesses to grant unpaid maternity leave. An employer, California Federal Savings and Loan, argued that the law violated the federal 1978 Pregnancy Disability Act, which states that pregnant workers must be treated as well as, but not better than, workers with other disabling conditions.

In the majority opinion in the California case, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote that the intent of the 1978 federal law was to provide a minimum standard for such leave, and that states were free to provide better provisions for pregnant women.

"California's pregnancy disability leave statute allows women, as well as men, to have families without losing their jobs," Marshall wrote.

Diane Dodson, counsel on family leave for the Women's Legal Defense Fund, said that since the Supreme Court ruling on the California leave law, 26 state legislatures considered family-leave bills, and seven passed them.

She also cited a study by Professor Sheila Kamerman of the Columbia University School of Social Work, which reported that 127 countries have national policies on family leave. "Places like Sri Lanka and the Philippines are more progressive than the U.S.," Dodson said.