I meet with Ruth Lockhart at Bard Coffee to discuss her work in partnership with the ACLU of Maine, and to attempt to (impossibly) capture her lifelong commitment to reproductive rights in a single blog post.
Ruth Lockhart is a co-founder of, and currently serves as the executive director of, the Mabel Wadsworth Center in Bangor – the only private, non-profit, independent women’s health center in Maine and one of only 14 in the nation. Lockhart led the Center from an all-volunteer operation to an established non-profit organization dedicated to providing educational and clinical services in sexual and reproductive health care to women, and she continues to fight for a future where all women are in control of their bodies and their lives.
In addition to her work at the Center, Lockhart is also the chair of the Maine Choice Coalition. The Maine Choice Coalition is a coalition of member organizations, the purpose of which is to develop and coordinate a statewide strategy to preserve and promote the rights to privacy and reproductive freedom. As chair, Lockhart has coordinated with the ACLU and other member organizations to defeat anti-choice legislation. She works closely with Samaa Abdurraqib, our Reproductive Freedom Organizer.
It was the late 1960s when Lockhart became aware of the women’s liberation movement. “I was married and had a baby. I was finishing my degree in Elementary Education at USM. I went to the National Organization for Women (NOW) conference at Bowdoin College and found the first newsprint edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves. It clicked that working in women’s health would be a good path for me.”
However, Lockhart did not take this path immediately. She taught special education in SAD 64 – “out in the hinterlands”—at a time before special education was mandated in the schools. Ruth leans over the table to explain, “That’s when I learned about real poverty.”
Lockhart’s career continued to advance in a non-linear fashion. From directing Big Brothers Big Sisters in Aroostook County to volunteering as a receptionist at Penquis Family Planning, where she later became a permanent counselor, Lockhart deepened her understanding of vulnerable populations as well as the intricacies of family health.
In 1984, Lockhart became the director of the Bangor Sexually Transmitted Diseases Clinic. At that time, she was engaged in conversations about creating an alternative model for women’s health care delivery with Sharon Barker, Terry Marley-DeRosier, Mabel Wadsworth and Phil Worden. “Reagan imposed the Global Gag Rule in 1984. Basically, any federally funded program could not talk about abortion. We needed a health clinic that did not rely on federal funding so that we weren’t restricted. So, we formed a board, developed our mission, and held a public meeting. We felt very supported by the community. Our first donation was $25.00. I still have the receipt for it!”
I ask Lockhart to reflect on the developments that she has seen through her work as a founder and eventually Executive Director of Mabel Wadsworth. “Medicine-wise, abortion has changed considerably. Medical abortion wasn’t available until 2000 … In terms of abortion regulation, it’s unbelievable how it has changed. We have successfully managed to fight every restriction. But fighting multiple anti-choice bills takes a lot of resources. Maine is a haven, but we can’t relax.”
Despite her concern that women’s reproductive freedom is under attack now more than ever before, Lockhart states that she is heartened by the younger generation she sees coming along. “There are amazing conversations going on. The personal is political.”
I ask her for any last words and she says with a wink, “Never doubt that a small group can change the world.” I complete Margaret Mead’s famous quote in my head. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.