What Can Ivanka Trump Possibly Do for Women Who Work?

What Can Ivanka Trump Possibly Do for Women Who Work?

What Can Ivanka Trump Possibly Do for Women Who Work?

For insight into how the first daughter will manage her signature issue, look no further than her brand’s website.


[E]ven though those who believe that my success is a result of nepotism might be right, they might also be wrong…. [T]here’s just no way to measure the advantage I’ve gained from having the Trump name…. So rather than worrying about what other people think…my focus is to ensure that these successes continue for the next generation of Trumps. After all, we Trumps don’t play to perceptions. We play to win.

Gosh, I sound like my father, don’t I? But that’s what you get from this particular Daddy’s girl.

—Ivanka Trump, from The Trump Card: Playing to Win in Work and Life

Ivanka Trump is moving out of her Manhattan apartment to Washington, where, she has said, her biggest job will be to ease her three small children into their new lives, new schools, and new city. The rumor is that she will also serve as a surrogate first lady while Melania Trump stays in New York with her young son. Much as Michelle Obama was concerned with childhood obesity, Ivanka will pursue issues related to women and work, which also happens to be the subject of her forthcoming book, Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success.

No one forced Ivanka to uproot her life like this. She could have remained in New York and assumed the leadership of the Trump Organization along with her brothers Donald Jr. and Eric, while also continuing to work on her own clothing and accessories brand, IvankaTrump.com. Instead, she will leave both to follow her father. It’s the kind of decision she has always made. After graduating from the Wharton School, as her father did, Ivanka decided to go into his business. She married another real-estate scion, a man who’s the virtual double of her father, albeit with better hair. She joined the cast of The Apprentice, because her father ran that. Now, dutiful and unimaginative, Ivanka is following Donald to DC, which he also runs. Many presidential family members have ridden similar coattails throughout this nation’s history, but not when attempting to embody the role of the independent working woman.

For three generations, the Trumps have been a family business. And, as is usual in a traditional family business, Ivanka’s father will bring his son-in-law into the executive sphere rather than his daughter. Jared Kushner, now a senior White House adviser, is just the kind of man that Donald Trump can trust, respect, and rely on, because he’s just like his father-in-law. Most important, Kushner is a man. In his official capacity, he’ll be in charge of bringing peace to the Middle East, among more prosaic tasks like reaching out to the business community. Ivanka has no such official portfolio.

In other words, Trump has left Ivanka to take care of women’s things, like her three little ones and possibly White House dinners, as well as… America’s women. From her new house in Kalorama (no official office, no official desk), Ivanka will be unofficially consulting for her father while Dina Powell works as his new senior adviser on entrepreneurship, economic growth, and women’s economic empowerment. Powell is a well-connected figure on the New York–Washington power axis who will be leaving her position at Goldman Sachs to join the administration. During the transition, she advised Ivanka.

Despite Powell’s appointment, the Trump manipulation machine wants us to think that Ivanka is really his women’s-rights representative. It also wants us to think that Ivanka, although a loyal tail-wagger for her father’s right-wing train wreck, is somehow above it all—that she is forward-thinking (a former bestie of Chelsea Clinton! an art collector!), almost progressive, almost feminist, and profoundly not a forgotten woman… so not Rust Belt! But jobless and officeless in Washington, at home with the kids (supposedly), Ivanka looks more retro than progressive. In fact, she has hardly spoken a public word about any policy or program since her moderate speech at the Republican National Convention. There and ever since, her only job has been to burnish Trump’s kinder, gentler side (if only he had one), to soften the Stephen Bannon blow, and to brand the new administration with a contemporary attitude toward women and women’s rights, rather than the attitude of a pussy-grabbing sexual predator.

But (and here’s the important thing): For all the talk of how Ivanka has her father’s ear, on women’s issues or any other… he doesn’t listen to her. In interview after interview, she’s been clear about how little interest Trump has in her opinion. “Does he listen to you?” one interviewer asked. “Depends on the day,” came her reply.

One day during the transition, for example, it was made to seem that Ivanka had a brief for climate change. She met with both Al Gore and the actor and environmental enthusiast Leonardo DiCaprio. But while Ivanka, and later her father, were chatting amicably with the former vice president, Trump’s transition staff was putting together a list of well-known climate-change deniers and opponents of environmental regulation to populate his government. In any case, Ivanka has no record of interest in climate change, other than having co-hosted a single climate-friendly awards gala in New York in 2008.

Trump doesn’t respect his daughter as a free agent and key adviser, a role that, of all the women around Trump, only former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway—now a White House counselor—seems to inhabit. Rather, Trump respects Ivanka because of her business acumen, learned from him; no doubt he respects her cojones, which are his cojones, and he probably appreciates her “weaponized graciousness,” as Emily Nussbaum termed it in The New Yorker. He also appreciates that her intelligence and ability and attractiveness and poise make him look good. Like any good narcissist, he respects her because she reflects him. In other words, Ivanka is a wholly owned subsidiary of “My Father,” as she almost religiously called him at the Republican convention.

* * *

Even the way in which Ivanka made her first stab at empowering women shows how far from progressive on these issues she and My Father really are. She didn’t go state to state talking to women about what they need, or set up teams to do that; nor did she establish ties with representatives from women’s groups around the country. (If she had, perhaps one of Trump’s first executive orders would not have been to cut off funding to international groups that support abortion.) Instead, she asked the hyperconnected, super-ambitious socialite Wendi Deng, former wife of Rupert Murdoch, to host a power dinner at Deng’s Fifth Avenue penthouse to discuss Ivanka’s new brief. In attendance was Powell herself, still nominally with Goldman Sachs at the time; a number of corporate CEOs; the head of the Ford Foundation; Daily Beast founder Tina Brown; Nancy Gibbs, the editor of Time; and the model Christy Turlington. Aside from being around the New York social circuit, Turlington had launched Every Mother Counts in 2011, a nonprofit that supports maternal health in the United States and which advocates internationally for safe birth practices.

This glitzy, high-profile branding of Ivanka’s portfolio was intended to mask the fact that she’s had little, or possibly no, experience dealing with the very difficult problems that lie ahead for women in America. Before the election, her main interest in women was getting them to buy her clothing, her handbags, and her shoes. Who can forget the ad that went up on the Internet the day after the convention to sell her little pale pink dress? “Shop Ivanka’s look from her #RNC speech,” her brand tweeted the next day.

Brand always wins out over substance with her (it’s part of the business mentality), and when the substance is called into question, Ivanka retreats. For example, consider her pre-election interview with Cosmopolitan writer Prachi Gupta concerning the Trump campaign’s proposal for maternity leave—a policy that Ivanka is supposed to have helped Conway develop to gain women’s votes for My Father. The proposed leave gives government support to mothers for six weeks after their baby is born—if they can prove legal married status and don’t have jobs that will already pay for it. Although the proposal’s terms are unclear, it seems to exclude half of same-sex mothers (only a birth mother can receive the benefit), all unmarried mothers, all mothers of adopted infants, and certainly all fathers, whether in heterosexual or same-sex marriages. After questioning Ivanka about who the policy would leave out, Gupta cited My Father’s 2004 statement that pregnancy was “an inconvenience for a business” and asked, “Can you talk a little bit about those comments, and perhaps what has changed?”

Ivanka’s answer: “So I think that you have a lot of negativity in these questions, and…I don’t know how useful it is to spend too much time with you on this if you’re going to make a comment like that.” When Gupta defended the question—“it is relevant a presidential candidate made those comments”—Ivanka shot back, “Well, you said he made those comments. I don’t know that he said those comments,” and ended the interview shortly thereafter. You can hear the echoes of My Father in those petulant and peremptory replies.

* * *

As a child, Ivanka was a total doll, an appendage and accessory for My Father. She was a golden, green-eyed, blond-haired thing, sweet-faced, alert, self-conscious, and, at 9 or 10 years old, already sexualized in a gold-lamé, lace-hemmed minidress, white pumps, gold jewelry, and a small, gold-chained gilt purse, her hair styled, her eyes watchful. In photos from the time, she always holds hands with My Father, more like a date than a daughter, while her mother Ivana trails them in the background (as Melania usually does today).

My Father could never keep his hands off Ivanka. In so many pictures of the two—as a child but especially as she begins to emerge into adulthood—Trump has his hands possessively on her waist or hips. Often, she’s sitting coquettishly, Lolita-ishly, on his lap. In one much-viewed photograph, he’s holding her there with his hands on her hips (she in a miniskirt, long legs aimed toward the camera), and she’s cupping his chin as if he were her own dear love. To the side is a gilt statue of two large copulating birds.

Trump, of course, once told an interviewer that it would be OK to refer to his daughter as “a piece of ass.” In a later interview, he said: “You know who’s one of the great beauties of the world, according to everybody? And I helped create her. My daughter, Ivanka. She’s six feet tall. She’s got the best body.” When asked on The View whether Ivanka would ever pose for Playboy, Trump replied: “I don’t think Ivanka would do that inside the magazine. Although she does have a very nice figure. I’ve said that if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I would be dating her.” He can’t stop talking about her body.

And yet, objectified as she certainly has been by this great big blustering objectifier of women, Ivanka has managed to pick up a lot of My Father’s game. She’s studied Trump and knows what he likes. He doesn’t go for bookish girls, so when she went to Choate—one of the country’s most exclusive prep schools—she also began working as a model (getting her first cover shoot, at age 15, for Seventeen). After all, models and actresses are the women My Father marries. Then, after proving to him that she was marriageable, she went on to try to show that she could be him as well, by working at the Trump Organization. To be the Trump daughter, you must be a living contradiction in terms. You have to be a tough, rip-roaring negotiator and deal-closer like My Father, but you also have to be a sexy, leggy, fuckable babe who doesn’t give much trouble. You have to be a Trump and a target for Trump.

No matter how much Ivanka talks about what a great parent My Father was, Trump—more available to her than to any of his other children—was still not very present. He called a lot. And he took her calls; she brags about this. He provided special treats, vacations, presents. She certainly knew that to a large degree he held the reins of her inheritance. But My Father said flat out that he didn’t like to care for children; men who change diapers, he’s opined, are “acting like the wife.” The day-to-day rearing of Ivanka and her two brothers was done by four people: two Irish nannies and Ivana Trump’s Czech parents, Milos and Maria. As Bill Maher once said about Trump’s kids, they’re like his real-estate projects: He doesn’t build ’em, but he slaps his name on ’em.

What this set of paternal behaviors seems to have wrought in Ivanka’s character is a woman who looks at herself and other women via the male gaze. She sees herself through My Father’s eyes. Look at her: Of course she’s pretty and young and has a great smile. But she’s also ultrafeminized—a walking advertisement. She’s beyond us, better than us, like a thoroughbred. She’s a virtual Miss Universe runner-up, a created feminine figure—unreal, fixed, sculpted, and styled, done up and made up, invented as a female object.

* * *

Like any good Trump, Ivanka has erected an empire atop this act of self-creation, in her case at IvankaTrump.com, a retail-cum-inspirational website where “Women Who Work” is a prominent channel. The video that introduces “Women Who Work” is a multicultural collage of 25-to-35-year-old women who choose to work and are figuring out how to make their careers blend with starting a family and keeping the home together. Not one of the women pictured says, “I don’t want to have children,” and not one is working at a typical industrial Rust Belt, lower-level office, or service-economy job—which is to say, the expected employment for most of the female American workforce. No one in this video says, “I hate my boss.”

Most of them seem to be their own bosses, or women who have started their own businesses. None of them are over 35, none are overweight; all are cisgendered. The Women Who Work are cookie- cutter, team-leader, go-getter gals, business-school graduates perhaps, all with good hair and makeup, nothing real or pained about them. There’s no evidence that any of them have struggled. They all seem to be upper-middle-class, no matter their color or ethnic background. They’re from a fantasy world in which every woman can get what she wants if only she works hard enough.

In another video, called “Women Who Encourage,” two reddish-haired women remove a clutch handbag from a gift box and then—one sitting and one standing, each in pink tops with black trousers, their coppery locks wafting—look tenderly at someone off to the right of the camera. This is how working women in Ivanka’s virtual universe encourage each other: by offering things that are bought (preferably from IvankaTrump .com), rather than by leading a walkout at their place of employment, say, or by supporting one another when it comes to claims of sexual harassment. On Ivanka’s website, conflict never exists.

IvankaTrump.com does have a section called “Wise Words” (“Nothing is impossible. The word itself says ‘I’m possible’”—Audrey Hepburn; or “It’s never too late to be what you might have been,” wrongly attributed to George Eliot; or “Challenges are opportunities”—so anodyne it’s not attributed to anyone.) But you’ll never read anything here about processing chickens or serving up burgers or sewing jeans, or what it’s like to be a secretary, a receptionist, a nurse, a hairdresser, a teacher, a saleswoman, a waitress, a bookkeeper, a cashier, or any of the other jobs at which most American women work.

IvankaTrump.com prefers to address style and fashion, what you can buy for work and what you should wear to work, rather than the substance of work. It includes tips on how to get promoted and tips for thinking like a Harvard Business School graduate; it includes pages about yoga for the workday, as well as about entertaining and lifestyle and exercise and what to eat and what to serve. So far, wages, discrimination, and sexual harassment have not been on the radar, not even in a Lean In–lite kind of way. That’s not the purpose of the website. It should be hashtagged #womenwhobuy.

This is what’s known today as “femvertising.” The best thing one can say about Ivanka’s retail celebration of women is that all of the women in her ads are portrayed as doing things for other women—the campaign is positively sapphic. Like all femvertising, IvankaTrump.com soft-pedals harsh realities; everything for working women comes wrapped in the gauze of love and encouragement and uplift and cool, calm niceness. Nothing on her site has to do with women’s empowerment, because empowerment is political, and the politics of female empowerment must naturally take on the bastions of male power, which Ivanka isn’t likely to do. Before the election, “Women Who Work” was part of her branding scheme, but now it’s been retooled as a political scheme for her father’s administration. The scheme should be beneficial both to the administration and to the brand, but not necessarily to women who actually work.

* * *

Anyway, silly me: I thought women who worked looked like Roseanne Barr, whose late-1980s sitcom embodied all the working women I knew growing up. Roseanne’s eponymous character worked in a plastics factory, was often unemployed, took a fast-food job, was a telemarketer and later a bartender, and at some point—a low point—worked as a hair sweeper at a beauty salon. And, of course, she was a waitress. This is what life was like for the working women where I grew up, in sooty New Jersey, and also, apparently, in Barr’s own Salt Lake City. (It turns out that the real Roseanne Barr, who ran for president in 2012, is now a slimmed-down, styled-up, face-fixed, and committed Hillary Clinton–hater—but I’m talking about the TV character, not the woman.) And if they didn’t look like Roseanne, they were pert, exhausted office workers like Mary Tyler Moore’s Mary Richards: put-upon, condescended to, and belittled by their boss and male co-workers.

In my hometown and in other places where I’ve lived, women who work didn’t have the money or time for Botox and blow-outs. They didn’t wear slim linen trousers and strappy heels and boxy pale cashmere V-necks to work, and they still don’t. They wore stretch slacks and polyester blouses. They didn’t work exclusively in streamlined offices behind empty Scandinavian-made desks with no books or files or mess of any kind, and with only other good-looking people their age.

Instead, the women I knew worked in crappy small businesses run by bad male bosses, or were hopeful, downtrodden receptionists or bookkeepers or office managers in male-dominated companies, or were wives who cooked the books for dentists and lawyers in fluorescent-lit offices with Formica-topped desks—women who smoked cigarettes and had bad teeth and no benefits, and who didn’t “love, laugh, and encourage” as their major preoccupations. They wouldn’t appreciate the little dictums on “Women Who Work,” like “Everything you need is already inside you,” or “If you can believe, anything is possible.” Imagine feeding this pabulum to Men Who Work, to start-up teams or traders on Wall Street. No one would ever presume to address young businessmen in the 21st century as if they were debutantes or Brownies on a 1950s television show.

Yet Ivanka, and My Father too, come from a line of women who worked. Her paternal grandmother, Mary Anne MacLeod Trump, came to the United States from Scotland and worked as a maid for at least four years, while her paternal great-grandmother, Elizabeth Christ Trump, born in Germany, actually became the matriarch of the family business in the United States after her husband died prematurely. That real-estate company was called Elizabeth Trump & Son, and the son was Fred Jr.—Donald’s father. (Elizabeth Trump & Son eventually became the Trump Organization.) Ivanka’s paternal aunt is Maryanne Barry, a respected federal judge. Her mother Ivana, while possibly laughable, never stopped working after her divorce from Trump. Among the many hats she wore: jewelry designer, advice columnist, newspaper publisher (in Croatia), publisher of the magazine Ivana’s Living in Style, novelist (one title is For Love Alone), television host (of Ivana Young Man—say it out loud), and investor in failed real-estate ventures. You cannot make her up.

Ivanka herself is an idealized working woman, with her pink clothes, sweet babies, perfect hair and jewelry, and her dedication to entertaining, décor, and a streamlined metrosexual husband. The image she projects is purposefully unthreatening to men (would you threaten men if your father were Donald Trump?). And because so many women have to some degree internalized this oppressed version of self, Ivanka can seem like a role model. She is the working woman that the working women I knew in my youth may have dreamed they’d become when they first started to work. They thought perhaps they’d make enough money to have hair like that, teeth like that. Enough money, in other words, to be free of the grinding work they had to do just to get by.

* * *

So we gaze at the lovely Ivanka. How can we help it? She is an object of fascination. She’s exceptional in every way: exceptionally rich, exceptionally entitled, exceptionally placed, exceptionally well-groomed, exceptionally secure in her position. Simply because she’s exceptional, she is implausible as a policy-maker for women. One of the things My Father has said about her illustrates precisely why Ivanka won’t help women as a supposed presidential influencer. When asked, in the wake of the Roger Ailes scandal, how he’d feel if Ivanka were harassed at work, Trump replied that she would never allow that to happen: If a boss were foolish enough to bother her, she’d just go out and get a new job.

Because Ivanka Trump can do that. The rest of us can’t. Ivanka is like the token black or Latino employee of the 1970s—the one exceptional person who is hired and then used to prove that everything is fine for everyone else of their kind, when patently it is not.

Also, one has to remember the troupe of handmaids who make Ivanka’s exceptional life possible. Every time you see one of those gorgeous, sleek pictures of Ivanka and her kids looking like the young Elizabeth II and the princes and princess (only better-looking and more fashionable), imagine for yourself, outside the frame, the numerous Filipino or Irish or Czech nannies and handlers and cooks and cleaners who make all that ease possible. Do those women have health care, maternity leave, retirement benefits, even citizenship?

Who is Ivanka more like: the Duchess of Cambridge, or Roseanne? At least Kate Middleton doesn’t pretend to be in charge of women’s issues in the United Kingdom; she’s purely aspirational. In The Trump Card, Ivanka argues—unaware of the laughter the assertion sets off in readers—that having been born rich and entitled is more a burden and disability than it is a privilege and advantage. In the 2003 documentary Born Rich made by her friend Jamie Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, Ivanka makes a few cameo appearances and has one scene where she shows Johnson her tweenage bedroom in Trump Tower.

“OK, this is a room,” she says, wearing a twinset sweater, her hair then brown, “that probably nobody has walked into for the past 10-plus years.” Laughing and half-embarrassed, Ivanka very charmingly guides us through her “time capsule,” like Jackie Kennedy touring the White House: the Madonna clock; a landscape that she calls “my interesting attempt at color painting”; the closet door with posters that she dubs her “homage to Poison and Mötley Crüe”; the Beverly Hills 90210 posters; and “the Bon Jovi sort of wall.” Pretty average fare for a kid of that era, until you see the lavender chiffon drapery around the brass canopy daybed, and you discover that this now-unvisited room is on the 68th floor, with an expansive view of Central Park. As she says, gesturing to the skyscrapers on Sixth Avenue and the whole sprawl of the green park: “Not a bad view to wake up to.”

Sometimes, women of this kind—pampered, raised to be unthinking and self-involved—can change and end up doing incredible things. But it’s rare. And under the thumb of Donald Trump, as an extension of My Father, it’s almost unimaginable. Women—so many of whom are underpaid, undervalued, disregarded, and abused—shouldn’t think that they can put their fate into the hands of someone who, no matter how hard she’s worked in her father’s company, has no clue of what struggle really means. The fact that Ivanka is supposedly guiding women’s policy shows just how little—not how much—My Father cares about it.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article described Ivana Trump and her parents as Croatian. In fact, they are Czech. The text has been corrected.

Listen to Amy Wilentz discuss Ivanka on the Start Making Sense podcast.

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