Kerry Washington is scared to watch The Handmaid’s Tale.
“I’m not sure I can handle it, particularly in these times,” Washington told Refinery29 in an exclusive interview on Tuesday following the Forbes Women’s Summit in New York City. We're sitting in the green room following her panel with Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, advocate and author Janet Mock, and journalist Tamron Hall. The Scandal actress isn't here to chat about binge-worthy TV, but the work she's doing as an ambassador for the Allstate Foundation Purple Purse campaign, which works to combat financial abuse. But it’s hard to not connect the cause Washington is focused on with the pop culture touchstone.
The Hulu miniseries, adapted from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, is told from the point-of-view of “Offred,” a 33-year-old woman who is systematically stripped of her rights and independence. The women in The Handmaid’s Tale don’t lose their freedom overnight — their liberties are gradually chipped away, law by law — but perhaps of the point of no return is the day they are removed from the workforce, their money and property confiscated, and they are forced to rely on men for financial support. Unfortunately, for many women in the U.S., truth is just as scary as fiction.
According to research from the CDC and the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC), one in four women are the victims of intimate partner violence — and a prime reason many women stay in the abusive relationships is because financially, they are unable to leave.
"Financial abuse may be difficult to recognize because, like other forms of domestic violence, it does not look the same in every relationship,” says Cameka Crawford, the chief communications officer for the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH), which provides confidential services to victims and survivors around the clock.
Last year, 19% of NDVH contacts reported some form of economic or financial abuse, Crawford says, which can include abusers maxing out their partner’s credit cards without permission, or limiting the hours a person can work. The experience is not only alienating, but potentially ruinous economically.
"Imagine not being able to pay for a cab ride because you don't have money, or not having access to a bank account or the use of a credit card because your partner won't allow it," says Vicky Dinges, Allstate's senior vice president of corporate responsibility. "Financial abuse is a powerful and invisible form of domestic violence that keeps victims trapped, but we can do something about it: We can stand up to abusers, speak out on behalf of victims, and support survivors in their recovery.”
Purple Purse aims to create a chain of support by awarding grants to local grassroots organizations that provide financial literacy services, job training, and entrepreneurship guidance to survivors. The foundation also provides a digital financial and career curriculum that survivors can reference, using expertise that keeps their circumstances in mind.
For her part, Washington is trying to remove the stigma behind the problem. "I think a big part of it is lifting the veil of shame," she says. "A lot of times we say, why does she stay? Why do they stay? We know from our work that the number-one reason people stay is because they don't feel like they have the tools to go. And all of us, rather than shaming and blaming, can use our resources to lend a hand to people who don't have access to that information to be able to transform their lives."
This is the third year Washington has teamed up with a designer to create a limited-edition bag people can purchase and use as a talking point. Growing up, money was a rarely discussed topic in her home, she says, which is one of the reasons she identifies with this issue.
“I know how disempowering it can feel to not feel financially literate,” Washington says. “Sometimes, as women, we just don’t want to be involved in the details and don’t want to ask the questions. And because it’s not something that we're necessarily taught, we’re not sure if it’s something we should know. Abuse is a multi-layered issue, so there are obviously sociological and psychological issues that need to be addressed, but when you can at least give a woman the tools to walk away, then you can start to do that bigger work."
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.