We Spoke to Lauren Chief Elk, the Woman Behind #GiveYourMoneytoWomen, About the Power of Cold Hard Cash
"This is how you literally shift capital. You hand it over for all of the things that we expect women to do that they are unpaid for. Talk about capitalism and the exploitation of labor: This is it."
Lauren Chief Elk (right) and Yeoshin Lourdes, a co-creator behind the #GiveYourMoneyToWomen hashtag. Chief Elk and Lourdes came up with the hashtag with Bardot Smith. Photo courtesy of Lauren Chief Elk.
When #GiveYourMoneyToWomen started surfacing on my social feeds last month, I thought it might have something to do with the way in which women are underpaid at the office. Brilliant, I thought, Give your money to women as a way of balancing out gender-based income inequality. But the idea behind the hashtag was even better than that: Women were banding together to demand payment for all the emotional work we do that goes completely unpaid—the exhausting work of being a tolerant, gentle, nurturing, listening woman in our relationships with men, at all times. Women put up with a lot of bullshit, and we have a science-backed term for it: Emotional labor. And as with any kind of labor, women are now ready and eager to get paid.
In the words of Jess Zimmerman, "Men like to act as if commanding women's attention is their birthright, their natural due, and they are rarely contradicted. It's a radical act to refuse them that attention. It's even more radical to propose that if they want it so fucking much, they can buy it." Bitch better have my money, indeed.
At the head of this movement is Lauren Chief Elk, an activist, prison abolitionist, and domestic violence victim advocate. She's also the driving force behind the viral hashtag #GiveYourMoneyToWomen, five words that practically beg the basement-dwelling men of the world to throw up their fists in indignation (before slamming them against their keyboards):
This kind of slime is hardly a surprise for any woman who has been on the internet for more than five minutes. What is more surprising about #GiveYourMoneyToWomen is the empowerment and community it has spread in its wake. Chief Elk has succeeded in starting honest, open dialogue, amongst women and between women and men, about money, labor, and knowing what you are owed. Theory and idealism have their place, but #GiveYourMoneyToWomen has inspired women to demand recognition within a broken reality. When you find yourself in a system that profits off of you and has done so for centuries, it's time to stake your claims.
In an attempt to shed more light on what this movement is actually about, VICE spoke with Chief Elk about her work as an advocate, her reasons for starting the hashtag, and the reality of an economic system that builds its wealth on women's unpaid labor.
VICE: Hey, Lauren. Could you tell us a bit about your background as an organizer? How did you come to start the #GiveYourMoneyToWomen movement?
Lauren Chief Elk: I've been heavily involved in this kind of work since high school, so going on ten-plus years now, and I've been involved in rape crisis advocacy and domestic violence victim advocacy. I also worked in organizing and policy at the governmental level and nonprofit level. Violence against women advocacy has been the center of my life and work, for my entire adult life and teen life.
Women of color have been rejoicing in song over this whole movement.
Does your work helping victims of domestic violence tie into the idea of #GiveWomenYourMoney at all?
The hashtag came out of a lot of things. As a prison abolitionist, and as someone who is thinking of alternatives to justice for power- and gender-based violence, monetary compensation has been something that I thought of as a really good alternative. What is an alternative? Making people financially responsible to you, making your abusers financially responsible to you. [The hashtag] came out of my own praxis for justice in regards to that. It also came out of just thinking about what women have to do all day every day, whether that's in marriages or relationships or work environments—anything really. The type of labor that we are expected and required to do all the time.
What kind of responses have you received from women?
Honestly, it's been overwhelmingly white women who've been upset about the hashtag. Women of color have been rejoicing in song over this whole movement. It has been overlooked by mainly white women who've been like, "This is ridiculous and giving feminism a bad name, what do you think you're doing." It's been interesting to see the racial divide.
Why do you think that racial divide exists?
Well, historically speaking, white women are also the beneficiaries of a lot of women of color's work, and also accrue lots of capital which white men in this country have. I think it's on par with the anger toward Rihanna's "BBHMM" video, with Rihanna kidnapping the wife and people being angry. Because she's a rich white women—even middle-class white women in general are beneficiaries of historical wealth in this country. [These are the same women who were] mad about the article on the "wife bonus," saying "This isn't feminism, getting money from your partner or men is not feminism," all this kind of stuff. It's interesting, because they are the biggest voices about the pay gap and wage equality.
What we have to put up with [as women] is expensive. Especially in violent situations. So to think that financial retribution is some kind of absurd idea of justice is, to me, absurd. This is reasonable.
What do you think of the whole "wife bonus" debacle?
The wife bonus is important. Women who are making their spouse's lives and careers their job should be compensated for it. Stay-at-home moms work multiple jobs. They act as cooks, chauffeurs, nurses, therapists, maids, personal trainers, teachers, tutors, personal assistants. And this labor is rarely recognized, especially monetarily. Wives should be getting bonuses and entire paychecks regularly.
I'm on board with your cause, and it makes a lot of sense to me. But for people who are confused or angered by it: How can cold hard cash rectify gender inequality?
In terms of this stemming from my ideas of justice, what we have to put up with and deal with [as women] is expensive. Especially in violent situations. Trying to get out of violent situations costs a lot of money: you need transportation, somewhere else to stay, you need to feed yourself, you need medical attention for the abuse you've accrued, for your children. You've gotta eat. You have to probably quit your job if it hasn't already been sabotaged. This can accumulate to hundreds of thousands of dollars, very quickly. So to think that financial retribution is some kind of absurd idea of justice is, to me, absurd. This is reasonable. This should be number one.
What about less extreme situations, where women aren't in explicitly abusive situations but are performing a great deal of emotional labor?
Emotional labor—the amount of things that women have to do, acting as the therapist to men; absorbing everything that comes out of them with a happy face; swallowing our feelings to not make things more complicated; learning that if we do start voicing displeasure, that's probably not going to get a positive response; always having to be happy and peppy and taking care of their feelings and their outbursts—whether that's in a work environment, relationship, or friendship, it's a lot of work to just put up with what's dealt out. I think there are lots of overlaps between emotional labor and abuse, having to navigate [around men], having to dance around their hotspots, dance around what they're going to be laying out on you. It's a ton of work. It is wearing and draining.
And god forbid you say something to them that is trying to put them in check. That's also work, having to [tell them off] or hold it in.
Or being responsible for educating them.
When I shared the #GiveWomenYourMoney sentiment on social media, one woman got very upset in particular. She argued that men do emotional labor all the time, too. "All of my best friends are guys," that sort of thing.
There might be these individual instances [of men performing great feats of emotional labor], but that's not the structure we live under. We live under a heteropatriarchal structure, which is why we call this a gender-based violence. We live in a male-dominated world, and that's part of why there is so much interpersonal violence and why the overwhelming perpetrators are men. These individual instances happen, but I'm not really worried about that. There's this thing called male privilege. That's what I'm more worried about. Also, who has all of the fucking wealth? Who has all of the power? Oh my god, one time you had to deal with a woman's emotional outburst, poor you.
Could you give me some more specific examples of emotional labor?
Acting as a therapist to men. Putting on a perky face for that. Having to be a yes person, always saying "Oh yes," and "You're so right," and "So great." Absorbing whatever kinds of outbursts they have—it's mostly always anger—and having a happy face on and nodding. Emotional labor is also hiding your feelings, not challenging, not voicing your displeasure for whatever reason, just keeping things inside. That's a lot of work, to swallow your feelings in fear, like If I voice this, things are going to get really bad for me in this environment. It wears down your self-esteem, your sense of self, your confidence, all sense of your being! This is heavy! It's heavy to do this and have to do this all of the time.
I go on Twitter enough to know that men are very angry. Very, very angry.
Should we just stop? Stop playing therapist, stop staying quiet, stop doing the labor we aren't being paid for? Or are there risks to opting out?
There are a lot of risks. Turning back to #GiveYourMoneyToWomen, a lot of the risks are monetary risks. If you don't do this [emotional labor] anymore, you could lose your job or your relationship or literally lose everything because all of this stuff is expected. It's sucks because a lot of the time women are told—and men have this in their heads too—that we are just inherent caregivers and nurturers, here to just take care of you. So when that gets disrupted, especially in an emotional sense, that's when they—this is going to be when empires crumble. When that is realized and women cut it off, truly, it's going to be when empires crumble. Because this [emotional labor] is so expected in any interaction when men interact with women. This [idea] started with Bardot Smith. Oh yeah, no, fuck this. Men get so much from us, they drain us for our knowledge, our support, our validation, our attention, no! If you want this, hand over your fucking money. Give me your cash, right now, if you want all of this.
This all ties in so seamlessly with the grim reality of being a woman on the internet.
I go on Twitter enough to know that men are very angry. Very, very angry. All the ideas about why we should be getting financial compensation—between talking about violence and abuse, between talking about how women teach them things every day, between taking care of them and them demanding things from us, the whole spectrum—there was a lot of anger. In a bigger, structural sense the [idea behind #GiveYourMoneyToWomen] is how we also fix things like the wage gap and wage inequality. This is how you literally shift capital. You hand it over for all of the things that we expect women to do that they are unpaid for. Talk about capitalism and the exploitation of labor: This is it.
On that note, are there other groups that are doing unpaid emotional labor? For instance, people working in the service industry for minimum wage, they still have to grin and ask us how our day is going.
I definitely think that. If we understand history, the basis of capitalism as we know it in the US came from the exploitation of indigenous and black people and specifically indigenous and black women. Looking at these frameworks is important. We're talking about money, capitalism, to specifically look at how the conditions of black and Native people still enable the United States and this whole Western economy to be the powerhouse it is. Where did it start? How did it get this way? We have to look at the position of women of color in the context of completely unregulated domination and exploitation in this capitalist system. A way to fix that is to shift the direction of capital, to start reversing things.