The Penjajawoc Stream, lined by tall evergreens, flows just outside two French doors in Executive Director Ruth Lockhart’s office at Mabel Wadsworth Women’s Health Center in Bangor. The room is serene, the lighting low (she doesn’t care for fluorescent lights) and tokens of her work are displayed throughout the space.
Pictures of friends and family fill a shelf against the back wall, a poster of India — a nod to her wanderlust — hangs on another, and quotes printed on paper are taped to her door.
“Good women support other women,” “Reproductive rights are human rights” and “Attitude is everything,” they read.
Early next year, Lockhart will leave her position at the center, after 30 years surrounded by like-minded colleagues in search of change. She leaves behind a legacy and years spent witnessing and advocating for changes to women’s health care in Maine and around the nation.
The early years
Mabel Wadsworth Women’s Health Center was founded in 1984 by five people seeking to create a center that not only offered reproductive health services to all women, but also empowered them. It is the only private, nonprofit, free-standing feminist health center in Maine and one of 15 in the U.S.
“We started with conversations around a table and that visioning turned into reality,” she said. “It was fun, scary and amazing.”
A long-time activist for women’s rights, Lockhart first became involved with the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s. Her interest in women’s sexual health rights peaked when former President Reagan attempted to pass a gag rule that would have effectively stopped health centers from talking about abortions.
Lockhart said she knew then that a center like the one she envisioned couldn’t rely on federal funding.
For the first eight years, the center was run by volunteers. During that time, Lockhart worked other day jobs, including overseeing sexually transmitted disease clinics and working on women’s health education. She volunteered in her spare time.
Her dedication to the center and women’s health was, and still is, evident to those who worked with her. George Hill, the president and CEO of Maine Family Planning, said Lockhart has a passion for helping women that is hard to match.
“My experience with Ruth has been that she has always been completely about access to women’s health services and completely selfless about everything she does,” he said.
Making Mabel Wadsworth
Lockhart’s first task at Mabel Wadsworth was to find a location for the center. It had to be safe and accessible, especially to women who didn’t have their own transportation. The group opened a small clinic on Harlow Street in 1992, where it stayed until the organization’s move to a location off Mount Hope Avenue in 2005.
Lockhart said what kept her going during those early days when budgets were tight, and safety from anti-abortion protesters was a daily concern, was the knowledge that she was liberating women.
“I saw the empowerment women had from access to the information they needed … and when they knew they were being trusted to make their own decisions about their reproductive health,” Lockhart said.
Over the years, she continued taking on various roles at the clinic and has since done everything from administer pregnancy tests to raise thousands of dollars each year as its executive director.
Hill said as he grew to know Lockhart professionally, he realized she was a good person to have in his corner.
“She was always open to working with us,” he said. “If they raised money for an issue that dealt with both organizations, we’d share. Ruth and her staff have given us a lot of advice and guidance and she in particular is very helpful when it comes to figuring out the nuts and bolts of getting something started.”
One of Lockhart’s major efforts in recent years has been to help end the stigma that surrounds women’s health centers and, particularly, abortions. The center started the Mabel’s Voices Project, which asks women to record a video about their personal experience with abortion. The goal is to end the shame and stigma that surrounds abortion and “stop the marginalization of reproductive health,” a flier about the program said.
Mabel Wadsworth also partnered with 1 in 3 Campaign, which aims to educate the public that one in three women in the United States will have an abortion in her lifetime, and worked with the All Above All campaign, which works to lift bans that deny Medicaid funding for abortions.
“One of the hardest things is dealing with the messages [about abortions] that are not true,” Lockhart said. “More often than not, they’re targeted at women who are already feeling shame and a stigma.”
While Lockhart certainly has many years of advocacy and change to look back on, she said she’s also looking forward to seeing what the future holds for herself and the center.
She plans to capitalize on her passion for travel and is excited to “get to know” herself.
“I want to find out what I’m like outside of work after so many years,” she said. “I’m looking forward to living an alarm clock-free life.”
But she said she’ll be keeping a close eye on the center, which has plans to expand in the coming months to offer more services including intrauterine insemination, basic fertility services and hormone therapy for transgender individuals.
“The younger generation is prepared to take over, I’ve seen some amazing leaders emerge,” she said. “This center is going through a very exciting evolution, and I’ll be paying close attention.”
As for those who will miss working with her professionally, the center has decided to start a “legacy fund” in Lockhart’s name and Hill said she should have nothing but pride when looking back at her life’s work.
“If you measure your life by the impressions that you’ve left behind among people … she’s lived a pretty damned good life as far as I’m concerned,” he said.