Empowering girls to shine

Karen Heck, Co-founder of Hardy Girls Healthy Women

Since the presidential election, advocating for women’s rights and reproductive rights has drifted from the fringe to the mainstream. But there have always been women, like Karen Heck of Waterville, working to “move policy.”

“You have to surround yourself with people who think like you do and support you,” says Heck. “No matter where you live in this state, you can find groups of women who are like-minded and make them your posse.”

Heck is the former mayor of Waterville and, with her husband Bruce Olson, co-owner of Tree Spirits Winery & Distillery. At 64, she counts herself lucky to have spent the majority of her career focused on social justice work, including the past decade working with the Bingham Program to change the cultural acceptance of violence against Maine women.

“I was raised in a family with three girls, and our father treated us just like boys,” she says.Her upbringing was, in short, a hardy introduction to feminism. For more than 30 years, Heck has worked in nonprofit administration with a focus on healthy development of women and girls. She was instrumental in starting Waterville’s rape crisis assistance and prevention program, the statewide abortion loan fund and the statewide women’s policy center. In 2000, Heck was one of the three founders of a nonprofit that has touched thousands of middle school girls: Hardy Girls Healthy Women.

“Girls have a lot of power, but the culture doesn’t want to support that power, because it wants women to be helpmates rather than equals,” Heck says.

Middle school girls involved with Hardy Girls say they feel societal pressure to keep their thoughts to themselves and to be consumed with shopping or obsessed with boys.

“There are girls with good ideas and energy, and what they need is to be around other girls like that,” Heck says. “They don’t have to be best friends, but when they find a common purpose that engages them, they can move policy together.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer from Scarborough.

Hardy Girls Healthy Women now facilitates Women’s Action Groups around the state to help adult women learn how to take action on issues that matter to them, whether they want to make a change on a local level or advocate nationally. Groups meet monthly. For more info: hghw.org.

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