It may be the best-kept secret in a feminist’s toolbox. And it’s right here in Bangor, looking for a new generation of energetic leaders to take up the cause.

The Zonta Club, an international organization established in 1919, has been active in Bangor for more than 80 years. The club’s mission is to empower women worldwide through service and advocacy. Among many recent projects at the international level have been a recent drive in Liberia to eliminate a disabling and medical condition known as obstetric fistula, a project to drill water wells in Sri Lanka and a campaign to end the widespread practice of female genital mutilation, also sometimes called female circumcision.

For 2018, Zonta International will highlight its ongoing global campaign to end violence against women. Many of the group’s international projects are carried out in collaboration with UN Women, an offshoot organization of the United Nations.

Here in Bangor, the club raises money to support these and other international efforts. But its day-to-day focus is local, if often under the radar.

“We are very careful to be apolitical,” said longtime member Alice Trott, 70, of Brewer. So you won’t find the Zontians, as they call themselves, on the front lines at any rally or demonstration. Instead, the group quietly supports a wide range of local organizations and causes that aid and empower girls and women.

“I really grew up in this club,” said 63-year-old Teresa Millett, who owns the D’Lor Beauty Salon in downtown Bangor. Historically, she never was much of a “joiner,” Millett said, but after being introduced to the activities of the club by a friend and former employer, she changed her mind and joined Zonta back in 1991.

Since then, she has served three terms as a board member, including one as president. Much of her energy has gone toward organizing the club’s fundraisers, which include an annual “holiday marketplace” at the Brewer Auditorium, a 5K road race, a popular — and lucrative — Bingo tournament, a wine-tasting event and other activities.

Millet said her involvement in Zonta has opened her eyes, her mind and her heart to the challenges faced by women all over the world as well as here in Maine.

“I have learned so much about the world and grown so much emotionally,” she said. “And my opinions have gotten really strong.”

Through a variety of fundraising activities, Zonta recently donated $25,000 to Sarah’s House, a program in Holden that provides temporary housing and support services to women undergoing cancer treatment. Other major gifts have benefited the Maine Discovery Museum and, in the mid-1990s, the building of a new pediatric unit at Eastern Maine Medical Center.

The group makes regular contributions to the Good Samaritan Agency, the Shepherd’s Godparent Home, the Spruce Run-Womancare Alliance (recently renamed Partners for Peace), the St. Andre Home and other area organizations that provide shelter, counseling and support services to women and girls. It funds six $2,000 college scholarships each year for college-bound high school seniors — home-schoolers are eligible — or adult women in the Bangor area.

In addition to financial contributions, Zonta provides school supplies, feminine hygiene kits and holiday gifts to women and children in local shelters. Literacy Volunteers, the Bangor Area Recovery Network, Rape Response Services, the Bangor Y and Girl Scouts of Maine are some other organizations whose missions are supported through Zonta Club funding.

At Girls Scouts of Maine, spokeswoman Cortney Smart said Zonta has been a longtime supporter of the organization, in part because many Zontians have formerly been involved in scouting as scouts, adult volunteers or both.

An upcoming event in Maine, still in the early planning stages, will bring the two groups together to focus on ways to “keep girls safe in today’s world,” Smart said — a reflection of Zonta’s global campaign to end violence against women and girls in all its forms.

One way to strengthen girls against threats and vulnerabilities is through education and positive role modeling, including the opportunity to interact with accomplished professional women, Smart said. “It is very important for girls to see leadership in action,” she said. “Girls emulate what they see around them, and strong female role models are essential.”

Rep. Barbara Cardone, D-Bangor, a lawyer serving her first term in the Maine Legislature, joined Zonta in 1994 when her two children were young. “It was an ideal opportunity for me to meet other professional women and work actively toward improving the status of women,” she said. She didn’t have any specific agenda, but felt strongly about working at the local level to serve and empower disadvantaged women.

At the level of policy and politics, she said, it’s essential to protect progress in women’s equality and make new gains. Cardone supported a failed effort to protect gender equality by adding an Equal Rights Amendment to the Maine Constitution, but helped defeat a bill that would have criminalized in Maine the practice of female genital mutilation, or FGM.

Despite the clear need to eliminate FGM, she said, she and other lawmakers were wary that criminalizing it would keep women who suffered related health problems from seeking treatment. Instead, she said, lawmakers voted to increase funding for education and advocacy in the few Maine immigrant communities where FGM is a common condition among adult women, though there is little evidence that it is actively practiced with younger girls.

“It’s important to work with these communities versus having them feel they’re being targeted,” she said. “Even though I voted against this particular bill, I will bring the issue of FGM back before the Legislature.”

Cardone also underscored the importance of providing positive role models for girls and women, including encouraging them to take an active role in the political process and run for public office. About 35 percent of Maine lawmakers are female, she said, with a stronger showing in the House than in the Senate.

“There’s a certain critical mass you need where the voices of women and minorities start being heard and are no longer an anomaly,” she said. Organizations such as Zonta can help bring more women into politics, business and public service, she said.

The Zonta Club of Bangor meets for networking, dinner and a business meeting on the second Monday of each month at Seasons Restaurant in Bangor. Dues are $125 per year.

Club president Jane House of Brewer, who is 72, said the active membership of about 35 women is aging.

“We so want younger people to join us,” she said. “Some of the older ones just can’t do it any more.”

Zonta also has an active chapter in southern Maine. Women and men interested in membership should be leaders or decision-makers in their places of employment, committed to the organization’s feminist mission, willing to participate actively in meetings, fundraisers and other activities, and able to financially support international programs. More information is available on the organization’s website, www.zontaclubofbangor.org

Meg Haskell

Meg Haskell is a curious second-career journalist with two grown sons, a background in health care and a penchant for new experiences. She lives in Stockton Springs. Email her at mhaskell@bangordailynews.com.