Women Like Me Have Been Doing Mutual Aid Since Before it was “Mutual Aid”

Friends walking by fence
Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash

“I didn’t know why I wanted to protect my brother, and why no one could protect me. I didn’t understand what happens to people when they are just trying to survive. I couldn’t have told you that, as a girl, I felt like I had a duty to my family, a responsibility that was God given or something close to it. As if I was the only one who could save us.” — Bobi Conn, In the Shadow of the Valley

When I wrote my memoir, I spent a lot of time reflecting on my experiences as a girl and young woman who often felt responsible for the happiness of everyone around me. This impulse to “save” everyone was a result of childhood dysfunction and abuse, as I desperately wanted to save my father from his demons, and I felt a need to protect the rest of us from the impact of those demons. That sense of responsibility as a child was too much to bear, and it led me to unhealthy relationships and unrealistic notions of what it means to love.

As an adult, I discovered how important it was to unlearn that sense of responsibility for others’ emotions and happiness. However, I also found that I am part of a loose collective of women who provide support for other families. I benefited from, and contributed to, a mutual aid network — long before “mutual aid” became a Covid relief buzzword, and before I had ever heard the term.

When I was a single mother to a toddler, his best friend’s mother offered to pay my utility bill one day, after I mentioned being short that month. I was shocked at her offer, and that loan stands out nearly twenty years later as a lifeline that I hadn’t known I could access, but then shaped how I thought about other families and the life-changing support we can provide one another.

Around fifteen years after that woman lent me money to keep our lights on, I was able to do the same for another mother — again, someone I knew through my son’s friends. We didn’t know each other well, and I wasn’t sure whether she would repay me or not, but I knew the impact their unpaid bill would have on the children. I also understood the stress that mother was experiencing, and how difficult it is to be great parents when we are battling worries, trying to hide our adult problems from the children who need us stable and present.

Photo by Andrae Ricketts on Unsplash

The most interesting aspect of these mutual aid experiences is that all of the women involved were working class or lower-middle class. We did not lend because we had excessive money ourselves, but because we valued the children and their mothers, and we were willing to take a risk to provide for them.

A few years ago, I stumbled across a crowdfunding site that provides loans to people around the world, fulfilling needs ranging from healthcare to education to sanitation projects. Their most prominent category of lending opportunities is simply titled “Women” and they explain the rationale for focusing on women — it’s because women reinvest 80% of their income in their families’ education and well-being.

As I’ve come to women’s rights and issues better, my understanding of women’s motivations has also matured. I grew up near my beloved Granny, who served as the matriarch of our rural, working class family. She loved many people and took care of them all, in some way, creating so much good despite her meager resources and limited autonomy, as a woman of her time and place. And inevitably, when I talk about her near-magical ability to provide more than she ever received, others share their own stories of powerful grandmothers who fed the entire neighborhood and created a safe haven for those who needed it.

My childhood impulse to take care of my family may have been entwined with a dysfunctional need to protect them, when I was the one who needed protection. But it is now easy to recognize the healthy desire to care for those around me, and to support women providing for their families, strengthening communities — that is a driving force behind a lot of work being done by women everywhere. Investment in women is investment in community, and a clear path toward a better future for everyone.

Author of In the Shadow of the Valley — A Memoir. Read more about my work at bobiconn.com.

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