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Advocate unites women's groups

February 14, 2000

Sharon LeathermanBy LAURA ERNDE / Staff Writer




A year after N. Sharon Leatherman worked to extend hospital stays for Maryland women and their babies after childbirth, the law hit home for her.

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Leatherman's newborn granddaughter stopped breathing. But because the baby was still in the hospital, doctors were able to resuscitate her. The child, now 3, is doing fine.

"That became very personal for me. Had it not been for that law, she would have been discharged," said Leatherman, 55.

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The law, which required insurance companies to cover extended stays, is one of several statewide initiatives Leatherman has helped to advance through her work on the Maryland Commission for Women.

Every year for the past six years, the Williamsport woman has brought together hundreds of advocacy groups to develop the Legislative Agenda for Maryland Women.

Soon after Gov. William Donald Schaefer appointed her to the women's commission in 1992, she was asked to spearhead the newly formed legislative agenda. Having worked on constituent problems for state Sen. Victor Cushwa before his death, she was familiar with the state's legislature and bureaucracy.

Leatherman invented a yearlong, intensive process to bring together grassroots organizations from all over the state. The coalition picks a handful of issues each year that are important to women. Individual advocacy groups then take the lead in lobbying legislators.

"I think her role in pulling together the coalition of groups has been extraordinary. I think the coalition would not have existed without her efforts to develop a process," said Judy Lyons Wolf, who chairs the legislative committee for the Washington County Commission for Women.

Because its support is so broad-based, the agenda carries weight with lawmakers, Leatherman said.

"Every issue is a woman's issue, but there are some issues that no one's going to address unless we advance it," she said.

For example, in 1994 the legislature passed sweeping legislation aimed at reducing domestic violence, which was a top priority on the women's agenda.

Leatherman is also proud to have supported legislation that required health insurance companies to pay for contraceptives and provided health care for poor children.

There are some issues that the coalition is still working on, including gay rights, she said.

It can be frustrating at times returning year after year on the same issues, she said.

"Unfortunately, we're still getting incremental justice. I call it justice on the installment plan," she said.

Leatherman's term on the women's commission expires this summer. She plans to remain, if needed, in an advisory role.

Calm and quiet are two words people have used to describe Leatherman. She's never sought to be in the public eye, preferring to work behind the scenes.

"That's my leadership style," she said.

Carol Silberg, executive director of the Women's Commission since May, said Leatherman has guided her.

"The thing that amazes me the most about her is how calm and serene she is. She's just the perfect person to work with all of these groups," Silberg said.

The issues on the statewide women's agenda sometimes conflict with popular opinion in Washington County.

At a public hearing in Hagerstown last year, Leatherman was one of two people who spoke in favor of requiring guns to be childproof. Two dozen people showed up to oppose the measure.

Leatherman said that difference hasn't hurt her. She feels more freedom to express her opinion on a statewide level.

"I can really work on issues that I'm concerned about, where I would not be able to do that in Washington County," she said.

Locally, women who work on women's issues are stigmatized, she said. For instance, local candidates endorsed by Women At The Table, a local group that encourages women to run for office, fared poorly at the last election.

"It's sad. I consider myself a feminist and in this community that has connotations that aren't helpful," she said.

That hasn't stopped Leatherman from serving on the board of directors of CASA (Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused), the Washington County Family Violence Council, the League of Women Voters and Washington County Church Women United.

Leatherman also has a full-time job as coordinator of the United Methodist Appalachian Development Committee. She brings together church conferences in 13 states to work on poverty issues.

"I don't know how she does what she does and does it in such a quiet way. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in the county who's worked as hard on as many issues affecting women and families," Wolf said.

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