LOS ANGELES — REBECCA LLEWELLYN, a woman who owns her own construction business, says California affirmative-action laws opened the door for her 20 years ago.
''They gave me opportunities that were just not available any other way. Without them, my attempts to form a company would've been disastrous.''
Kay Feldman, a sophomore at the University of Southern California, says affirmative action ''hurts people.... Instead of hiring people on merit, they accept them based on gender.''
The opinions encapsulate a debate that is percolating in this state and across America about the group many analysts say has been helped more than any other in the nation's 30-year experiment known as affirmative action -- women.
''Women are the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action and have been for 25 years,'' says Karen Johnson of the National Organization for Women.
''But there is still a long way to go.''
The US Department of Labor says 6 million women have found employment that would have been otherwise denied them thanks to formal invocations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- compared with about 5 million minorities.
Statistics from the just-released federal Glass Ceiling Commission reflect some of those gains: From 1950 to 1990 for instance, white men dropped from 65 percent of the labor force to 43 percent, while white women increased from 24.2 percent to 35.3 percent.
But the statistics also reflect barriers: Last year, only two women were chief executives of Fortune 1,000 companies. Salary levels in jobs comparable to those of males average 20 percent lower.
Perceptions of women's progress -- or lack thereof -- are shaping where women come down on affirmative action. Largely because of a citizens' initiative now gaining momentum here for the 1996 ballot, California offers a case study of the complexities women feel about the issue.
The California Civil Rights Initiative seeks to end government programs that give minority and female preferences for jobs, promotions, contracts, and college admissions.
Several states, such as Florida, are looking at duplicating CCRI, while conservatives in Washington are drafting legislation that would strip racial preferences from federal law.
''The debate is sweeping the country but will play out in California first,'' says Elizabeth Toledo, California coordinator for NOW.
Because they are the largest constituency affected by affirmative-action laws, women will be key to the success or failure of such efforts to reduce affirmative-action programs. And attempts are being made to mobilize women -- mainly against attempts to roll back existing laws.
Lobbyists from several women's groups have already descended en masse on the Legislature in Sacramento to try to defeat 10 such bills before they leave committee. A key Senate bill was defeated last week 5 to 4.
This weekend, coalitions of activists from NOW, the League of Women Voters, the National Women's Political Caucus, and Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition will gather in California and Washington to trumpet their support of existing programs. Members are enlisting grass-roots support from schools, churches, and civic organizations.
''Most women don't have any idea of the enormity of what they could lose if affirmative action is rolled back,'' says Gloria Allred, president of the Women's Equal Rights Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Yet women aren't all of one mind on the issue. Many younger women, in particular, believe, like Ms. Feldman, that preferences should be based on merit instead of gender or race.
Some women, too, have seen the effects of ''reverse discrimination'' on men in their lives -- a husband, son, or relative passed over in favor of a woman or minority.
''Women are ambivalent about affirmative action because the details are complex and consequences are unclear,'' says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School in California. ''Men, women, and minorities are all affected with innumerable permutations as to how, and who, and why.''
TWO national polls released last week -- one by the Los Angeles Times and the other by the Washington Post -- give the appearance that women oppose affirmative action by wide margins.
But Los Angeles Times pollster John Brennan says, ''There isn't one question with one wording that will tell you what any group thinks [about this issue].'' He says respondents are far more conflicted than activists on either side of the issue would admit.
''If you ask women if they are in favor of 'affirmative action' they are much more inclined to say yes. If you ask 'do you favor quotas,' 'set-asides,' 'preferences,' or 'goals,' they say 'no way,''' Mr. Brennan says. ''You are sort of left in limbo over who is going to win this battle of semantics.''
But for affirmative action, the semantic question is paramount -- even more so than with most issues, several observers say. Nowhere in the wording of the CCRI initiative is the description ''affirmative action'' used.
The measure ''would prohibit the state or any of its political subdivisions from using race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin as a criterion for either discriminating against or granting preferential treatment to any individual or group....''
To drum up opposition, women's groups here are calling on members to publicly tell their stories of success in the workplace because of traditional affirmative-action laws -- yet also to emphasize how far they still have to go. They also don't want the issue framed as just a question of race.
''Those who want to do away with affirmative action know they can gain acceptance with more voters if they make it solely a race issue,'' says Annette Hall, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the League of Women Voters.
Still, those like Ms. Llewellyn who are pushing to continue racial and gender preferences know they have a tough battle in convincing younger women.
''We need to show the daughters of the world how far we've come because of the windows that were opened to us,'' says Llewellyn, who contends that, without affirmative-action laws, her company would never have established itself in the construction industry.
* The first two articles in this series ran on March 31 and April 4.