For many, candles are a small but bright indulgence — the kind of item you might impulsively toss in your shopping cart after a hard week. They’re the kind of gift you don’t have to think too hard about.
For Britney Spears, they have become a sign of newfound financial independence.
In the video, Spears, speaking on the patio of her Thousand Oaks, Calif., home, said, “I’m grateful, honestly, for each day and being able to have the keys to my car, and being able to be independent and feel like a woman, and owning an ATM card — seeing cash for the first time, being able to buy candles.”
“It’s the little things for us women but it makes a huge difference, and I’m grateful for that,” she continued. “It’s nice. It’s really nice.”
The comments struck a chord with Spears’s fans, who applauded her newfound financial freedom.
“It brings tears to hear a grown woman say, I finally get to hold my car keys in my hands & drive anywhere. I actually have cash now. I can buy a candle,” said one Twitter user.
“You go girl! Every woman should be able to control their own finances,” said another.
Spears’s battle against her court-ordered conservatorship has drawn attention to the specific restrictions and ethical issues around the legal structure. But her struggle to regain financial independence is one that women in a wide variety of contexts can relate to.
“Women’s struggle to control their earnings is a long-fought battle,” said Sara E. Lampert, an associate professor of history at the University of South Dakota. Lampert’s scholarship focuses on the late 18th and early 19th century, when the women’s rights movement was burgeoning in the United States and other Western countries.
Lampert pointed out that a major part of this struggle was accessing “the financial mechanisms that are tied to independence and opportunity in our society,” such as bank accounts and lines of credit.
More than a century later, Spears’s comments remind Lampert of how recently women have been able to gain full control and access to financial independence: “She calls it the little things, but they are huge.”
Conservatorships and guardianships are designed to protect vulnerable individuals, but ever since Spears’s legal battle came to light (in part thanks to the New York Times documentary “Framing Britney Spears”), many scholars and disability advocates have pointed out that these structures can strip individuals of their autonomy in harmful ways.
At a June court hearing, Spears gave an account of the conditions of the conservatorship, saying she had been “traumatized” by it, and that it was “demoralizing and abusive.” She said she had been forced to take medication, and despite her wish to have more children, she was required to keep an IUD in place.
Lampert sees Spears’s conservatorship as deeply rooted in “the way we’ve infantilized women” as a society. “We’ve seen women as not really competent to control their own destinies, their own property, their own earnings.”
While financial restrictions are no longer explicitly written into law, women continue to experience economic abuse in interpersonal relationships, Lampert noted.
“Controlling women’s finances and wresting control over their credit cards or their bank accounts is a major tool used by abusers,” she said.
Kim Pentico, director of economic justice at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said financial abuse is often what keeps abuse survivors trapped in relationships they would otherwise leave: “It is pervasive and it is effective.”
It’s only been recently — in the past 10 years, she said — that advocacy organizations have put more emphasis on financial freedom as a way to keep women safe.
While Spears repeated her claims on Tuesday that her family “should be jailed” for how they treated her, she has not indicated that she experienced physical abuse. Still, Pentico said she thinks Spears’s case is an important reminder that even people with significant amounts of wealth or privilege can experience financial abuse in ways that are not readily apparent.
“That may be a very public version of them, and a very different private version of what their life looks like,” she said.
Katherine Mason, an assistant professor of sociology and women and gender studies at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, thinks Spears’s situation also highlights a specific intersection of disability and gender rights.
“She’s been in this position of court-mandated dependency, and I think that notion of exchanging freedom for protection is something that we see in a number of places in our society,” Mason said. This is the case with children, for example, as well as seniors with dementia, or those who have been judged mentally incompetent or incapacitated.
Spears went through a series of public breakdowns in 2007 and 2008, setting in motion Jamie Spears’s takeover of her financial and personal life. In April 2019, while living under the conservatorship, Spears checked into a mental health facility in California. In her Instagram video, Spears said she wanted to be an advocate for people “with real disabilities and real illnesses.” (It is unclear what, if any, mental health conditions the pop star has.)
Regardless of her disability or mental health status, Spears’s case highlights the “false binary” between dependence and independence that women with these conditions often face, according to Mason.
“We often think of dependence and independence as an either-or choice: either you’re independent and you do everything on your own, or you’re dependent and you have to give up your freedom for that,” she said. But even though those living with disabilities often do need help, Mason said, what they’re asking for is the ability to choose the kind of support that works for them.
She said she worries that Spears might face an outsize level of scrutiny now that she has taken back the reins of her life, noting that people who have been labeled as disabled or incompetent face “intense pressure to never make a wrong decision or bad choice.”
But in being so vulnerable and open with her fans, Mason said, Spears has helped spur more people to question who is affected by conservatorships and economic abuse, and how common they are. “I think that is a really potential revolutionary question to come out of this whole story,” she said.
Lampert, too, can see how Spears’s case — while being unrelatable in many ways — can resonate with women whose lives look very different from hers.
“Seeing a woman who has done so much, is herself a parent, breaking free of those legal mechanisms — you want her to be able to live this full adult life in ways that we have made more possible.”