Marjan Sax – 2024

In the 1970s, a young feminist named Marjan Sax inherited a large sum of money from her father. Over the next decade, she struggled to decide what to do with her new-found wealth. Her financial advisers urged her to invest the money or move  to a tax haven, but neither of those options felt right to her. ‘They couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to do that.’ But then Sax realised she could use the money to invest in a cause that was near and dear to her heart: the women’s movement. In 1983, she and four of her fellow lesbian activists founded Mama Cash, the world’s first international women’s fund. Forty years later, Mama Cash is still going strong!

‘I founded Mama Cash together with four of my friends. We were all active in the women’s movement and knew from experience that if you came up with a great idea for an initiative, sooner or later you’d have to figure out how to pay for it all – things like hiring a van, for example. But the organisations you could go to for funding either made you jump through a bunch of hoops or just didn’t care about women’s issues. We cared. Eventually, we decided to use my inheritance to fund feminist activism. Looking back, the decision to handle the money ourselves was quite a revolutionary act. At that time, many women were intimidated by money. It was associated with power and oppression, and the women’s movement wanted nothing to do with it.’

Power imbalance

‘We took a different view; we believed it was vital for us to control our own finances. In our eyes, financial power should rest with the people who were actually doing the work and fighting for women’s rights. We didn’t need some outsider telling us how to spend our money or deciding what did or didn’t meet the funding criteria! Of course, it isn’t always easy to keep the power where it belongs, as we discovered after setting up our own women’s fund. When it comes to money, there’s inevitably a power imbalance between the giver and the receiver. We wanted to minimise this imbalance, but how? How could we ensure that grant recipients didn’t just say what they thought we wanted to hear, or place us on a pedestal? 

Together, my co-founders and I developed strategies that aligned with our vision. It was a complex process, and we didn’t always succeed in avoiding these kinds of power dynamics. At first, the five of us made all the decisions about who qualified for funding ourselves. Later, we switched to working with various consultants, and today Mama Cash directly involves activists in grantmaking decisions. I think that’s fantastic!’ 

Championing diversity 

In its earliest years, Mama Cash not only funded a wide variety of women’s initiatives and activism, but also provided support to women entrepreneurs who were denied bank loans. ‘Each time, we carefully considered how to allocate our resources as strategically as possible to bring about real change. We didn’t have enough money to actually provide loans ourselves, but we were able to act as guarantors. In doing so, we proved to banks that women were perfectly capable of starting their own businesses. We wanted to show that people who don’t fit the stereotypical image of an entrepreneur – a white man in his thirties – also deserved loans. Divorcees, mothers, older women, and women of colour can be entrepreneurs, too. 

We’ve supported dozens of small businesses over the years, such as the Netherlands’ first sex shop for women and the first hair salon for people of colour. At the time, it was a real eye-opener for me to learn that specific techniques and specialised expertise are required for styling Afro-textured hair. There were plenty of classic feminist initiatives like women’s shelters, of course, but we also helped fund a bridal boutique and an organic farm, as well as the world’s first conference for sex workers.’ 

Women with Inherited Wealth

Initially, many people were unaware that Marjan Sax had provided the start-up capital for Mama Cash. She kept quiet about it for six years before finally ‘coming out’ as the organisation’s financial backer. ‘I felt uncomfortable about it at first. The whole concept of inheritance is deeply unfair – some people inherit a huge pile of money, while others get nothing. I was something of a Marxist at the time and wanted nothing to do with other wealthy people, for fear of being seen as a “capitalist”. That all changed when I learned about a network for women with inherited wealth in the United States. The network’s founder, Tracy Gary, noticed that women who inherited money often relinquished control over their inheritance to male family members or financial advisers. She made it her mission to encourage women to manage their own money. I thought to myself, “I’m going to do that in the Netherlands!” Shortly afterwards, I revealed in an interview that I had provided the start-up capital for Mama Cash. Little by little, other women who had inherited large sums of money began to come forward. Together, we founded Women with Inherited Wealth (De Erfdochters). 

Over the years, I’ve mentored many groups of women, providing them with the courage and the insight they need to put their money to good use. Even today, women often lack  confidence when it comes to financial matters, which is why it’s so important to talk to one another about money! Being open about money allows you to cut straight to the heart of the matter. Not only that, but it feels good to spend your money on things you’re passionate about. Instead of investing in some multinational like Shell, invest in things that make the world a better place, in solidarity. There’s so much inequality in the world. Using your money to address this imbalance however you can is both incredibly meaningful and deeply satisfying, even if all you can spare is five euros per month.’


Although there’s been considerable pushback against empowerment and equal rights in recent years, Sax doesn’t subscribe to the idea that meaningful change is impossible. ‘When it comes to women’s place in society and our awareness of women’s issues, we’ve made incredible progress over the last four decades! I remember when Marga Klompé became the first woman to serve as a government minister here in the Netherlands. Nowadays, it’s not at all unusual for women to hold high political office. It’s easy to forget how small the feminist movement was back in those days. We really struggled to make our voices heard. But just look at the #MeToo movement today – it took us decades of activism to get here, but now we finally have a global movement against sexual violence.

Yes, there has been some backlash – at times violent. Strong women who stand up for their beliefs always provoke fierce opposition. But while there’s still much to be done, it’s important to recognise how far we’ve come compared to 40 years ago. Progress has been agonisingly slow at times, but we’re definitely moving in the right direction.’ 

Evolving over time

When Sax looks back on 40 years of Mama Cash, she sees much to be proud of. ‘The Red Umbrella Fund, for example. Mama Cash helped establish the fund, which is dedicated to protecting the rights of sex workers. The topic of sex workers’ rights is one that many people prefer to avoid altogether. However, I’m pleased to say that Mama Cash has never shied away from issues that are contested and under-addressed. I’m also proud of Mama Cash for supporting activists in other countries and regions in setting up their own women’s funds, and for always striving to grow and improve by listening to what activists really need. For example, Mama Cash now offers long-term support, empowering groups to plan for the future. I’ve enjoyed watching them explore ways of involving activists more directly in grantmaking decisions, as well. That’s what I love about Mama Cash – it’s a vibrant organisation that continues to adapt and evolve.’