The first years
During the first years, Mama Cash gave numerous grants to cultural initiatives. Many supported groups were part of the vibrant radical women’s press in the Netherlands. Among the magazines receiving money were lesbian literary magazine ‘Lust & Gratie’, ‘Ashanti’, Lesbian periodical ‘DIVA’ and ‘Bad Girls’, a woman’s magazine about sex. In addition, Mama Cash granted support to radio programmes, publishers, archives, centres for documentation, printers and bookstores for and by women. These groups were mainly non-profit organisations. ‘Financing the autonomous women’s press was a conscious choice,’ says founder Marjan Sax. ‘We wanted to be heard, and offer an alternative feminist press. We strategically chose to support our own culture, a counterculture independent from the institutions of the establishment’.
Mama Cash also supported the emerging feminist infrastructure in the Netherlands, such as women’s and girls’ centres, women’s health centres, helplines and centres for self-defence. She granted funding to projects such as Furious Witch, that offered shelter for women who had run away from psychiatric institutions, or who were afraid to be institutionalised. The Girls’ House, another grantee, continues to offer living and shelter facilities for girls and young women who have been battered or abused, or whose freedom has been compromised. ‘Blijf van m’n Lijf’ continues to provide shelter to battered and abused women. It also provides refuge to women who have been trafficked. Mama Cash’s grants and loans provided a stable basis for feminist activities to flourish in the margins of Dutch society.
Not all initiatives supported by Mama Cash managed to survive. Some organisations that had to suspend their activities returned what was left of their Mama Cash grant so that it could be used for other causes. After a while, however, most of the organisations were able to support themselves.
Mama Cash also supported new women entrepreneurs. In the beginning of the 1980’s it was hard for women entrepreneurs to get a loan for their plans; banks were prejudiced against their entrepreneurial capacities. Also women often did not have enough capital of their own to invest. Mama Cash not only wanted to challenge the practice of banks that had different standards for men and women, she also wanted to actively assist women entrepreneurs. Through campaigns, networks and media, Mama Cash drew attention to the fact that women whose business plans had been rejected by banks could call on Mama Cash for a grant or a loan. Because Mama Cash mainly supported small-scale undertakings, loans were relatively small.
However, this role as financier for new entrepreneurs, soon became problematic: Mama Cash was not a financial institution, but an activist group with money. Her resources were small, and the grants and loans she provided to new entrepreneurs represented a large portion of those resources. Also, Mama Cash did not have enough people on staff with the time and skills to regularly monitor her clients’ business management practices.
Mama Cash started to approach the unwilling banks and persuaded them to provide loans to women entrepreneurs. In exchange Mama Cash acted as a financial guarantor. Founder Marjan Sax: ‘These guarantees were a model we invented ourselves.’
Challenging gender roles
It made a lot of sense that businesses such as the women-owned printer Siething Sift, car mechanics The Muffler, and My Sin, the first sex shop for women in the Netherlands, had received loans from Mama Cash. After all, the Siething Sift and The Muffler served the higher purpose of challenging the traditional gender roles by providing work to women doing jobs typically reserved for men. Rotterdam based My Sin was different from other sex shops: it offered a woman’s take on sex toys and lingerie. ‘We weren’t willing to sell enormous plastic dildos,’ says owner Wilma Brokling. ‘We offered subtle porn instead of the gaping vaginas that men are interested in’.
Start Guarantee Fund
In the beginning, the women of Mama Cash reviewed each of the grant requests themselves. In 1986, they established a separate working group, the Guarantees Working Group. The Working Group reviewed all requests from entrepreneurs and advised the founders whether it recommended financial support or not. In 1987 it became a separate foundation on its own: Mama Cash Guarantee Fund.
Women with inherited wealth
Encouraging women to set up businesses was a start, but Mama Cash wanted to do more than that. She also believed that women should take responsibility for their own resources. Together with other women who had inherited wealth, Marjan Sax founded Women with Inherited Wealth (Erfdochters) in 1985, an independent network of women who refused to leave the responsibility for their resources to their husbands, brothers or to a bank. They learned to make decisions about their capital and to invest it in meaningful ways.
As with many other left-wing and feminist organisations at that time, Mama Cash had an international vision. She wanted to fund autonomous women’s groups in the ‘Third World’ (as many countries in the Global South were then called) and advance the independence and self-awareness of women in the Global South and East. In the beginning, for instance, she subsidised a women’s street theatre in Jamaica and a meeting about women’s health care in Mexico. In the Netherlands, Mama Cash was known for funding women starting their own businesses; in other countries, she decided not to focus on women entrepreneurs. ‘That is what Women’s World Banking is already for’, Mama Cash’s first annual report clearly stated. Mama Cash was not willing to provide money for development aid either: ‘No weaving baskets’ and ‘no digging water wells,’ founders Marjan Sax and Lida van den Broek declared independently. ‘Unless they addressed empowerment,’ Van den Broek says. (watch interview)
In 1985, founders Patti Slegers and Dorelies Kraakman represented Mama Cash at the NGO Forum, a shadow-conference that took place during the UN World Conference on Women in Nairobi. ‘Our mission was to expand our contacts and find women who could be [Mama Cash] advisors’. Slegers says. ‘We were also hoping to find someone for our annual study grant’. The Nairobi conference presented an extra spur for Mama Cash to support women outside the Netherlands.
In 1985, Mama Cash’s founders attended for the first time a congress of women’s funds in the United States. ‘This was an exciting event for us, and a rather shocking one for the Americans,’ remembers Marjan Sax: ‘We were openly lesbian, and we weren’t afraid to address the issue’. (watch interview)
First international women’s fund
In the introduction to the first annual report the founders wrote that Mama Cash was ‘the first women’s fund in the Netherlands that gives financial support to a multitude of initiatives promoting feminism both practically and theoretically’. At the time they did not realise that they had done something more revolutionary: they had founded the first international women’s fund in the world. Until the Global Fund for Women was founded in San Francisco, inspired by Mama Cash, in 1987, Mama Cash was the only women’s fund that looked beyond national boundaries, financing women’s groups internationally.
During the period 1983 – 1986 Mama Cash granted 517,000 euro to 199 women’s groups. Volunteers were doing all the work.