#FreeBritney, Financial Abuse, and Power-To

A black and white cartoon by Liza Donnelly

As published on June 25th for the SheInvests newsletter on LinkedIn.

SheInvests Newsletter #11

On Wednesday, Britney Spears spoke in court about her desire to end the conservatorship that has governed her life for the past 13 years. Her statement was made in public, with a full transcript available to read online. And if you decide to read it, I hope you are as horrified as I am about the extent to which this woman has been exploited and robbed of her agency. Robbed of her life. Actually, you should read it, and I hate “should-ing”​ people. But everyone should read it. Ms. Spears’​ story really matters, and I stand with her in affirming her right, her human right, to have control over her life. I am writing this in support of her, and also to bring light to the issue of financial abuse.

So yes, this is a story about Ms. Spears, but it is so much bigger than just one woman. It is a story about extreme financial abuse, and this form of mistreatment is common and rampant. I know it is because women talk to me about it all the time, but in wider conversation, it is extremely under-discussed. This is also a story that invites every single one of us to think about our relationship to our money, and how we may, or may not, have agency over it. Money is a tool, a tool of power, so ultimately, this is a story about power. Who has it, and who does not.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve owned my money, and it’s my wish, my dream for all of this to end without being tested again.”​  – Britney Spears

I have long advocated that we all should aspire to have a healthy relationship with our financial resources. Meaning we should all have the knowledge, agency, and healthy accountability to oneself, and as appropriate, to others. By others, I mean those in a committed relationship who have a responsibility to make financial decisions WITH their partner. This is particularly important for women, as we are raised, thanks to the power of the patriarchy and other forces, to NOT prioritize our financial well-being. In fact, we are pushed and pulled towards very unhealthy and vulnerable places as it relates to our financial resources. We are bombarded with messages that encourage us to just find a man to take care of us, and to trust “experts”​ to take care of our money for us. And this doesn’t even begin to address the fact that it actually costs more to be a woman, and generally speaking, women on average earn less than men. According to The Center for American Progress, a woman who earns 82 cents on the dollar, the average wage gap, will have $400,000 less over a 40 year career.

This idea, that a man is a financial plan, is so prevalent in our culture, but it is also very dangerous. Leslie Bennetts wrote about this so powerfully in her bestselling book The Feminine Mistake, and it remains on my “must-read”​ list​ despite being published nearly 15 years ago. In Leslie’s words, “the Feminine Mistake was originally inspired by my exasperation at the public glorification of stay-at-home motherhood and the failure of the media and other analysts to warn women about the risks of sacrificing their financial independence.”​ The mistake she is referring to is choosing financial dependency. Yes, some do choose to give up their independence, but that is not the full story. When society, culture, media, parents, partners, and advisors TEACH US as females to not be in a relationship with our financial power, it should come as no surprise when that does not manifest. Women are therefore groomed to abdicate their financial power. Even worse, when we see such blatant abuse of financial power, as in the case of Ms. Spears, we are quick to look for reasons why it is justified. That practice is disgusting and wrong, and there is no way this would be happening to a man with a similar profile. For example, Justin Bieber went through some challenging times in 2014, but the end result was not a decade of financial and emotional oversight. And what about Elon Musk? People go through things, have meltdowns, it is what it means to be human.

I previously ranted about the power of the patriarchy and patriarchal financial systems, and this is why I feel so strongly that finance and money constitute the new frontier of feminism. Little in this world will really change as it relates to advancing gender equity until women who collectively have a whole lot of money, a whole lot of financial power, and power more generally, figure out how to own it and use it. And to be clear, it is more about power than it is about money. Money is a tool for power. It is a tool that can be wielded for good, yes, but we are all also very aware of the depths to which it can be used destructively. One of the worst ways it can be used is when control over money is used to take away another’s agency. Financial abuse is abuse, and that is why it is almost always present with other forms of domestic abuse.

Financial abuse involves controlling a victim’s ability to acquire, use, and maintain financial resources. Those who are victimized financially may be prevented from working.

They also may have their own money restricted or stolen by the abuser. And rarely do they have complete access to money and other resources. When they do have money, they often have to account for every penny they spend.

Overall, the forms of financial abuse vary from situation to situation. Sometimes an abuser may use subtle tactics like manipulation while other abusers may be more overt, demanding, and intimidating.

In the end, the goal is always the same—to gain power and control in a relationship (click over to this article to understand more about what financial abuse is).

While less commonly understood than other forms of abuse, financial abuse is one of the most powerful methods of keeping a victim trapped in an abusive relationship. Research shows that victims are often too worried about their ability to solely provide financially for themselves and their children to end the relationship. Furthermore, financial insecurity is one of the top reasons women return to abusive partners. I guarantee that you know people, you may even be that person, who experiences financial abuse. The cost to our society of all forms of abuse is massive, billions, and is powerfully illustrated here. As I mentioned, many women have shared their stories with me, and the commonalities between them will be the subject of yet another article, as will be the advice I both give and garner from experts in the field.

As it relates to Ms. Spears, she is fighting for the right to control her finances, and, more generally, control over her life. Again, if you read the transcript and assume it is true, which I do, then every part of her life seems to be under the control of someone else, including her rights over her own body. Her right to choose to have a child. It also appears that she has been forced to work against her will. If, and this is a big “if”​,​ she once needed the courts to intervene, that was 13 years ago. Given everything that she has accomplished in those 13 years, it is clear that whatever legal measures may or may not have once been needed are no longer necessary.

A conservatorship is a legal structure that is supposed to protect and support an individual who cannot take care of themselves. It is supposed to put the best interests of the at-risk individual first, but there is a big difference between supporting someone and controlling someone (click here for an article about the conservatorship). Let me say that again. There is a WORLD of difference between supporting someone, caring for someone, and controlling someone. What Ms. Spears describes, the life she describes is one of control, not care. What is so insane is that she has continued to work, be the provider, while also being the one confined.

“​There should be… I shouldn’t be on a conservatorship. If I can work and provide money and work for myself. It makes no sense. The laws need to change.”​ – Britney Spears

A photo of Britany Spears, smiling into the camera, holding a MTV Award

Therefore, today I am asking you, the reader, no matter what your sex or gender may be, to think about your relationship to financial resources. Is that relationship healthy? Do you have the knowledge you want and need? Are you the decision-maker around what you invest, spend, and give? Do you have agency, or in other words, independent decision-making authority? And if not, who do you report to, and does that person report to you in the same way? Is there someone who makes the “final”​ decision as it relates to money? Why them? Remember, money and power tend to go hand-in-hand.

Now, ladies, I am talking to you specifically. Do you give away your financial power? Do you invite, or allow, others to guide your financial decision-making? If so, why? There may be some good reasons, and there may be some that are not good or beyond your control. I am not judging, I am asking. Truly. While few relationships are governed by legal conservatorships, countless relationships are functioning as if they are. Again, the definition:

A conservatorship is a court-approved arrangement where a person or organization is appointed by a judge to take care of the finances and well-being of an adult whom a judge has deemed to be unable to manage his or her life.

How many inappropriate, demeaning, controlling, invisible conservatorships are happening in the relationships between capable adults right this second? In the same way that women are taught and groomed to give up their financial power, men are taught, groomed, and raised to embrace it. To take it. To use it. Most romantic relationships are initially formed with love and respect, so why not express our love and respect in our financial relationship as well?

We can all aspire to be in a healthy relationship with our financial resources, but it will take deep introspection regarding our interactions with money. It remains somewhat of a mystery to me why most of us would rather do almost anything else than work on our financial literacy, despite the fact that having enough money is essential to our well-being. Essential. It is my mission to understand the reasons, barriers, and challenges women face around financial engagement, and to work to eliminate them. We can all use money as a tool for good, and as a resource to serve ourselves and our families lovingly. As my friend Gloria Feldt says, “​power-to not power-over“​.

And for you Ms. Spears, I wish you well. I hope you get what you are asking for and are surrounded by people who love you and want to see you flourish in every way possible. I hope that the people who have decision-making authority over your life put your best interests first, as they are supposed to. I hope they listen to you and trust you. You are not only incredibly talented, but you have worked so hard to earn financial resources that should be of service to you, the loved ones of your choosing, and the goals and dreams you have for your life and the change you want to see in the world. As you so perfectly said, “I deserve to have a life.“​ Indeed you do. So does everyone.

#FreeBritney – Take to social in support

“​If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”​

Lilla Watson

A photo of the staff of ShePlace holding a #FreeBritany sign

A photo of two male allies holding a #FreeBritany sign

The first photo is of us gals in the ShePlace Office at Kiln. Park City. The second photo is of Ryan Fanny and Brian Rodio who occupy the office next door and were our photographers. They have been putting up with a lot of loud Britney Spears music these past few days.

Thanks once again to the incredible Liza Donnelly for her original drawing for this SheInvests Newsletter.

Resources

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