Britney Spears can’t leave the house without permission or live where she wants to. She can’t spend her own money or make crucial decisions about her body — such as whether or not to have more children. For the last decade, every one of these decisions has been made by her father. Spears’ life is completely out of her hands. She is a woman legally owned by a man.

If this level of control sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Britney’s fight for freedom follows a long line of women campaigning for legal freedom over their own lives.

‘I deserve to have a life’

In a passionate address to the court last Wednesday, Spears revealed the full extent of her treatment in a bid to end the conservatorship that controls her.

Conservatorship is a form of legal guardianship of an adult, and as a conservator, you have control of the conservatee’s professional and personal life. This is typically done for those deemed unable to make their own decisions, either because of mental illness or a developmental disability.

The pattern of control seen in conservatorships can be seen throughout history. For centuries, women’s freedom has been controlled in three primary ways: restricting self-determination (control of their bodies), choice, and movement. We see these same patterns in Spears’ conservatorship as she is stripped of all these basic freedoms.

In her words:

‘I deserve to have the same rights as anybody does, by having a child, a family, any of those things’.

By being forced to keep an IUD contraceptive device, she loses her bodily autonomy. By being denied the ability to leave the house, she loses her freedom of movement. From the very nature of a conservatorship, she loses the ability to choose.

While her family are allowed to speak to the press, Spears has been legally silenced. Like thousands of women throughout the centuries, she pleads:

‘I can’t say one thing … I have a right to use my voice’.

The history of hysterical women

Throughout the 19th century, women with mental illness, such as bipolar disorder, depression or anxiety were diagnosed with ‘hysteria’, a catch-all diagnosis for what was seen as improper behaviour, such as insomnia, fainting and crying.

Legally owned by husbands and fathers, many women experiencing hysteria were locked away for bed rest, known as the ‘rest cure’. The treatment prescribed a complete lack of activity; forbidding creative pursuits and visitors, and restricting the patient’s movement so they weren’t even allowed to leave their bed.

Writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman famously criticised ‘the rest cure’ in her chilling psychological horror, The Yellow Wallpaper.  In this, we encounter a woman isolated and alone, slowly driven mad through the confinement and control that are carefully designed to protect and care for her wellbeing. She writes:

‘I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time. Of course I don’t when John is here, or anybody else, but when I am alone. And I am alone a good deal just now’.

This enforced isolation and absolute control over a woman’s actions draws striking similarities with Spears’ own experience. She recounts:

‘I will tell you, sitting in a chair 10 hours a day, seven days a week, it ain’t fun … and especially when you can’t walk out the front door’. … I’m not happy. I can’t sleep. I’m so angry it’s insane. And I’m depressed. I cry every day’.

Both scenarios are deeply rooted in the patriarchal stereotype that women are over-emotional and incapable of looking after themselves without a man. It is concerning that this age-old stereotype still persists so dangerously in the US legal system. It is also a sign that we have not truly progressed as much as we supposed.

The wider picture

As a woman with a history of mental illness, Spears is extremely vulnerable to abuse through conservatorship. There is clearly a broader, systemic issue at play.

Incredibly, conservatorships have little to no safeguards and checks. In a 2010 report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found hundreds of allegations of physical abuse, neglect and financial exploitation in conservatorships.

Women are especially vulnerable to harm. A 2019 report found that women controlled by guardianship were significantly less likely to have had essential medical check-ups — such as mammograms or pap/smear tests — than those without guardianship. They were also less likely to be included in the community, communicate with friends or have their rights respected.

The very existence of conservatorships threatens human rights. Once women are labelled ‘hysterical’ or ‘mentally unfit’ it becomes a lifelong battle to prove otherwise and can undermine any future expression of independence.

In this context, Spears’ impassioned speech was not just a fight for personal freedom but for the freedom of many women facing a similar struggle for independence — a fact that she acknowledges:

‘I truly believe this conservatorship is abusive, and that we can sit here all day and say oh, conservatorships are here to help people. But ma’am, there is a thousand conservatorships that are abusive as well’.

So I ask: how can we claim to have moved forward as a society when state-sanctioned control and ownership of women is still legally permitted? When a wealthy, hard-working woman like Britney Spears has her rights legally stripped away because of a past mental hiatus, what hope is there for the others?

In fighting for Britney, we declare that women are not a commodity but individuals who deserve autonomy, respect and our leniency to be less than perfect without serving a life sentence for it.

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