What do Black Lives Matter, the Aba Riots in Nigeria, U.S. bus boycotts in the 1950s, the Rojava Revolution in Syria, Stonewall, and the French Revolution all have in common? Yes, they are all revolutions of some sort—but specifically, those led by women.
While women are often thought of as providing care to individuals, they have also always been central to organizing within their communities to further collective care. Unfortunately, they have not always received as much recognition for their work as men, and women of color have received even less than white women. However, their contribution and leadership in revolutions, mutual aid, political organizing, protests, and other equity- and justice-focused activities has been and continues to be essential for community well-being.
One recent study done on mutual aid in Poland followed the creation of what was termed the “visible hand” network. This is a mutual aid group that grew to nearly 100,000 participants on social media shortly after COVID-19 exploded—80% of whom were women (Solidarity and mutual aid: Women organizing the “visible hand” urban commons). Their motive? Simple: 83% of respondents said “I wanted to help others in a difficult situation.” Other attributes of the mutual aid process include “developing supportive relationships, identifying and developing strengths, and collaborative work toward psychosocial goals.”
As the study notes, this motivation also applies to women’s involvement in “urban commons,” which are spaces and resources available for community use. An important component of many societies around the world for millennia, urban commons provide forests, gardens, housing, and other physical space for communities (most greatly benefiting those with the least resources themselves); they also treat care itself as collective work which provides more time for rest, as well as protection from violence and poverty. As women spend disproportionate time on caregiving duties in many societies, urban commons and collective care (including mutual aid) are something that can benefit women individually as well as a community as a whole.
Mutual aid is loosely defined as community support that arises when systems, such as government and resource distribution, fail to meet the needs of everyone. As societies have failed women and people with marginalized identities time and time again, it is unsurprising that the collective leadership that goes into organizing mutual aid and community solidarity have been from marginalized identities including disabled people, women, people of color, queer and trans people, and others.
One example is of Ericka Huggins, a former leading member of the Black Panthers. The Black Panthers were perhaps most famous for their Free Breakfast Program which at its height was active in 45 cities around the country feeding 50,000 kids. Teachers immediately saw that children were happier, more alert, and learning better due to receiving proper nourishment. This was one of 60 “social survival” programs that the Panthers established, which also included a free ambulance program, free medical clinics, and free rides for elderly people doing errands.
Additional mutual aid programs faced sexism and/or gender-segregated structures but still protected and involved women. For example, the Landsmanshaftn, a mutual aid society for Jewish immigrants from Europe beginning in the late 1800s; the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, organized in the 1850s by some of the first Chinese immigrants to support the same; and the Mutualistas established by Mexican immigrants. The Mutualistas "provided most immigrants with a connection to their mother country and served to bring them together to meet their survival needs in a new and alien country. Cultural activities, education, health care, insurance coverage, legal protection and advocacy before police and immigration authorities, and anti-defamation activities were the main functions of these associations.” Some Mutalistas chapters were led by women. Later, in the 1970s, Black lesbian women founded the Combahee River Colonee Collective to support one another against the intersections of racism, sexism, and homophobia that they faced. You can learn about these programs and more in ‘Solidarity, Not Charity’: A Visual History of Mutual Aid.
In all of these examples, societies were created by those who faced a lack of support by the government and greater society in order to provide aid and services to others in their communities suffering from oppression, and women have always been involved in community care. In the next article, we’ll explore some specific examples of amazing community activists who we can all learn from.