With 13 years of experience and a master's degree in library science, Suzanne Levy makes less than $25,000 as a Fairfax County librarian -- the same salary as a county maintenance superintendent with a high school diploma.

Michelle Leber earns $31,209 as branch manager of the county's George Mason Regional Library -- a salary that she said is $11,000 less than that of her counterparts, mostly men, who work as Fairfax County planners, budget analysts or engineers, who are required to have only undergraduate degrees.

"I don't feel I'm paid equitably for what I do," said Leber, who has a master's degree in library science and 15 years of experience. "It's simply not fair."

Levy, Leber and 64 other Fairfax librarians lodged a "comparable worth" complaint last year against the county with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Because the EEOC has taken no action, the librarians plan to file suit in federal court early next year, according to their lawyer, charging that the lower pay for their jobs, held predominantly by women, constitutes sex discrimination.

Fairfax is not alone in facing the issue of comparable worth, which has been heralded as "the civil rights issue of the feminist movement" and derided by Civil Rights Commission Chairman Clarence M. Pendleton Jr. as "probably the looniest idea since 'Looney Tunes' came on the screen." Like scores of states, counties and municipalities across the country, nearly every jurisdiction in the Washington area is grappling to some degree with the comparable worth issue.

A relatively recent and extremely controversial legal theory, comparable worth expands the concept of "equal pay for equal work" to encompass "equal pay for work of comparable value," a step that supporters say is necessary to narrow the wage gap between men and women. In a pay system based on comparable worth, secretaries would be paid the same as janitors, or librarians the same as engineers, if their jobs are found to require the same degree of skill, effort, education and responsibility.

Opponents of comparable worth have blasted the idea as an unworkable attempt to assess the intrinsic value of jobs, and an unwarranted intrusion into the marketplace that could result in economic chaos.

Among the comparable worth activities in the Washington region:

The Maryland General Assembly passed a resolution last year expressing support for comparable worth for the state's 50,000 employes. A gubernatorial commission is studying the state's job evaluation and compensation system, a crucial first step toward implementing comparable worth because it would reveal the existence of any wage disparities.

Meanwhile, the state is the target of a comparable worth complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, alleging that the median salary of male employes is 20 percent higher than that of female employes. The union cited findings that maintenance supervisors, most of whom are men, are paid an average of $18,303, while office supervisors, most of whom are women, make an average of $12,718.

In October, Virginia completed a study of implementing comparable worth for the state's 70,000 employes. The study, by the state departments of administration and finance, concluded that "a gap in the average salaries of working men and women exists in nearly all public and private sector organizations." But it termed comparable worth a "debatable means of reducing the pay gap" that would likely entail "a sizable price tag."

Citing union findings that the predominantly male blue-collar work force in the District of Columbia government earns a yearly average of about $1,500 more than the mostly female white-collar workers, City Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) said last month that she will introduce legislation requiring a study of such disparities among the city's 30,000 employes.

A Montgomery County commission studying the county's personnel system is expected to vote next month on whether to recommend that the county conduct an in-depth comparable worth study.

A preliminary report by committee member Winn Newman, a lawyer who has led the battle for comparable worth and who also represents the Fairfax librarians, found "a serious underrepresentation" of women in higher-paying county jobs, with the average grade of predominantly female jobs 2 1/2 grades lower than the average grade of jobs held mostly by men.

"It appears that at least some predominantly female jobs are being paid less than predominantly male jobs which clearly require a lesser composite of skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions," Newman concluded.

Meanwhile, Montgomery County nurses have organized to fight for a comparable worth adjustment to their salaries, which they say have been depressed by a sexually biased county rating system.

They point out that most nurses in the county are stalled at the grade 18 salary level, with pay starting at $20,613 and rising to $31,311 after 22 years, while county engineers, accountants and auditors, whose ranks are predominantly filled by men, enter at grade 18, but can skip after two years to grade 21, with a starting pay of $23,672 and a maximum salary of $36,052. All of the occupations require at least a bachelor's degree.

"The work we do is undervalued and mainly that's because we're in a female-dominated field," said Carol Mathews, who heads the nurses group.

Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening has ordered the formation of a task force on personnel and compensation that will study comparable worth, among other issues affecting the county's 3,000 employes.

"It's an issue on the horizon," said Tim Ayers, a spokesman for Glendening. "We're a major employer and we've got to look at it the same way any employer does."

Arlington County is expected next month to select a consultant for a two-year, $350,000 project to develop a "state of the art" classification and compensation system for the county's 2,500 employes. Comparable worth "is certainly an issue that is there" as part of that study, said Arlington County Personnel Director Alan Christenson.

The General Accounting Office is studying methods of conducting a full-scale inquiry into comparable worth for federal workers -- an effort that could affect more than 360,000 employes in the Washington area and that opponents warn could cost the government as much as $8.5 billion.

A GAO study released in April found that women hold 75 percent of GS-6 jobs (with a salary range of $16,040 to $20,855 in 1985) but only 12.4 percent of GS-13 positions ($37,599 to $48,876).

Several states already are implementing comparable worth plans. Minnesota has launched a $42 million, four-year comparable worth plan for state employes and has ordered localities to incorporate comparable worth into their salary scales by 1987. Iowa will start a $30 million to $50 million revamping of its pay system next year, and it already has allocated $10 million to institute a comparable worth system.

In the most celebrated court case involving comparable worth, a federal judge ordered Washington state last December to pay between $300 million and $850 million in raises and back pay to 15,000 workers in female-dominated jobs who were underpaid by 20 percent, according to the state's own study. That ruling is being appealed, but the state has enacted legislation requiring that pay disparities be eliminated by 1994, and appropriated $1.5 million to that end last year.

But while the judge was sympathetic to the comparable worth argument in that case, others have rejected it. Comparable worth is "pregnant with the possibility of disrupting the entire economic system of the United States," U.S. District Court Judge Fred M. Winner of Colorado warned in rebuffing an early comparable worth claim.

"The biggest flaw of all is that comparable worth ignores the law of supply and demand," said Mark A. de Bernardo, manager of labor law at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which estimates that instituting comparable worth could cost employers as much as $320 billion nationwide. "Comparable worth ignores how many potential people there are to serve as electricians vis-a-vis how many people there are to serve as librarians."

But supporters argue that adopting comparable worth plans is a necessary step in eradicating vestiges of discrimination against women. A recent Rand Corp. study found that women currently earn 64 cents for every dollar earned by men; according to Census Bureau figures, women with college degrees make less on the average than men who have not graduated from high school.

Although the 1963 Equal Pay Act mandates equal pay for equal work, comparable worth supporters contend that that standard alone is inadequate, because the bulk of working women is concentrated in a small number of low-paying, overwhelmingly female occupations.

Moreover, they argue, the lower pay in those occupations does not stem solely from market forces, but rather is a holdover from the era when such jobs were overtly labeled as "female."

"I'm not aware of a shortage of tree trimmers or of toll collectors or of parking lot attendants or of custodians or of forklift operators, so it's hard to explain why they get paid more than the typists and the nurses and the secretaries," said Newman.

The pay differences between men and women "originated because the jobs were sex-segregated, and the same kind of mentality that thought it was okay to pay men and women differently for doing the same job thought it was okay to have low pay in jobs filled primarily by women," said Marilyn DePoy, coordinator of women's rights for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which has been in the forefront of the comparable worth battle.

"Women should not all have to become plumbers to make a decent wage," she added. "If they want to, that's fine, but they ought to be able to expect that the salary they get for the work that they do was not based on sex."

Myrna Olsen, a Montgomery County school nurse, said she has a bachelor's degree and 10 years of experience and makes about $10.50 an hour -- less than $22,000 annually on a full-time basis. "Obviously, a female-dominated profession such as nursing just doesn't give a person the opportunity for advancement -- certainly not moneywise," she said.

"We do a professional job. We should get a professional's pay," said Fairfax County librarian Betty Butler. "I have household expenses like everyone else, and they should pay me for the work I've been doing."