Ivanka Trump has it all… Or so we’re told… A lifestyle brand and clothing line, conventional beauty pageant looks, softly-lit photos featuring a perfect family life, and an influential husband. She also appears to be one of the only people that her father, now the actual President of the United States, occasionally listens to.
In light of Donald Trump’s election, Ivanka has been working hard to carve out a public image as just a regular mom who messes up her baking but also manages to run multiple lucrative business ventures. This image works for her. I cannot say the same for the more baffling merge she’s attempted in supporting Donald’s vile, misogynistic campaign while simultaneously claiming a stake in the feminist fight.
A blurb for her upcoming book, Women Who Work, reads:
“Our grandmothers fought for the right to work. Our mothers fought for the choice to be in an office or stay at home. Our generation is the first to fully embrace and celebrate the fact our lives are multidimensional. Thanks to the women who came before us and paved the way, we can create the lives we want to lead — which looks different for each of us. Women who work lead meetings and train for marathons. We learn how to cook and how to code. We inspire our employees and our children. We innovate at our current jobs and start new businesses.”
Ivanka wants to “redefine” what it means to be a modern woman, using the saleable veneer of “girl-power feminism.”
Of course, presenting #womenwhowork as an innovative concept ignores the fact that women — particularly working class women and women of colour — have worked both in and outside the marketplace since the beginning of humanity. This work is not the kind of work that is promoted or applauded by Ivanka and her supporters. Incidentally, the women who work to make Ivanka’s lifestyle happen remain invisible, even as part of a brand that alleges to support and celebrate working women.
Every time I hear the phrase “women who work,” I roll my eyes. Growing up in my Dominican Republic, I never met a woman who didn’t work. Every single one was busy doing something — most did traditional work outside of the home, but even the few who would be called “stay-at-home moms” made and sold ice cream to the neighborhood kids, sewed clothes for the church ladies, or set up makeshift hair salons in their living rooms to make ends meet. The idea that Ivanka’s #womenwhowork is a new approach to womanhood ignores the mostly-thankless work women have always done.
As the disgusting presidential campaign wore on and the racism and misogyny of Donald Trump’s politics (which Ivanka enthusiastically endorsed as a surrogate) became more evident, Ivanka seemed concerned, not for the dangerous implications that political rhetoric would have for those most marginalized in society, but for what this would mean for her brand. Days before Election Night, a story in the New York Times reported:
“[Donald Trump’s] polished older daughter, Ivanka, sat for a commercial intended to appeal to suburban women who have recoiled from her father’s incendiary language. But she discouraged the campaign from promoting the ad in news releases, fearing that her high-profile association with the campaign would damage the businesses that bear her name.”
However well-curated her “feminist” lifestyle brand is, the message doesn’t add up. A former classmate of Ivanka’s told a Huffington Post reporter during the presidential campaign:
“I thought, she is either lying to herself or she is making herself believe things like her father does. She is up there talking about women in the workplace while the crowd is basically chanting ‘lock up the bitch.’”
Ivanka Trump and her initiative have been getting rave reviews from fashion magazines and conservative media, but there’s just one problem: Ivanka’s feminist peers don’t want to anoint her as one of their own. In fact, they seem outraged that a woman like Ivanka would try to use feminism to promote either herself or her business ventures.
In The Guardian, Jessica Valenti writes:
“In a moment when the mainstream understanding of feminism is less about politics than it is the nebulous idea of ‘empowerment,’ this diversion could very well work. In the last 10 years, feminist rhetoric has become popular enough to co-opt — from conservative organizations that claim women ‘deserve better’ than abortion to ‘you go girl’ campaigns that sell cellulite cream.”
Valenti quotes founder and editor of Bitch Magazine Andi Zeisler, who says that Ivanka is “among the many people who have opportunistically grasped at the label [feminist] as a means of trying to appear relevant to women.”
The analysis offered in Valenti’s piece lays the blame for this watering down of the feminist movement at the feet of conservative women — particularly “conservative femininity,” as she calls it. Valenti argues “that anything having to do with women can now be positioned as ‘empowered’ will only help Ivanka keep up her feminist facade — not just among voters, but in a mainstream culture and elite class eager to embrace women’s rights so long as they’re depoliticized.” Zeisler calls this “marketplace feminism.”
What Valenti and Zeisler fail to mention in their analysis is that, as leading third wave feminists in the U.S., they were both instrumental in depoliticizing the movement. As the founders of Feministing and Bitch Magazine, neither of these women were on the periphery of liberal feminism — they were leading the charge. And the mantle of that charge was that feminism was indeed about individual “empowerment” and “choice,” not a political movement to end male supremacy.
The same liberal feminists who are now saying, “We need to stop the myth that feminism is simply ‘anything a woman does’” were the very same women who popularized the idea that feminism is anything a woman does or chooses. The women who now claim to be confounded that literally anyone (including Donald Trump) and anything could be considered feminist, were the ones who told us that all you had to do to be a feminist was “believe in gender equality” or simply take on the label, regardless of what you believe.
In Full Frontal Feminism, Valenti writes:
“I always was a fan of the dictionary definition. Feminism: 1. Belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. 2. The movement organized around this belief. At the end of the day, feminism is really something you define for yourself.”
The problem with this bland definition is that it implies that believing in something is enough. But for a political movement that seeks to abolish oppressive systems of power and to challenge the status quo, believing is not enough. I can believe climate change is bad all I want, but that won’t stop climate change. Likewise, “believing” in a meager concept like “equality” won’t dismantle patriarchy. On the contrary, it neutralizes the power of the movement and allows for the forces it is meant to fight to appropriate it.
Beyond that, if Valenti truly believes “feminism is something you define for yourself,” she can’t reasonably argue that either Ivanka or a pro-lifer can’t take on the label.
This is, for the record, exactly how the pimp and sex buyers’ lobby managed to infiltrate a movement that should center survivor voices and oppose the commodification of women’s bodies. It’s also how we ended up with a wave of feminism that labels this particular form of exploitation “empowerment.”
Third wave feminists shot themselves (and the rest of us) in the foot by insisting feminism is nothing more than a personal identity. Now, they’re trying to backtrack by (ironically) coopting what radicals have said all along, but without taking responsibility for the role they themselves played in this fiasco. In fact, Ivanka used Valenti’s defanged version of “feminism” to defend her father as a feminist, stating:
“People talk and talk about gender equality, but do they actually live it? My father has. He believes in equality amongst the genders: economically, politically, socially. My father has empowered women, including me, his whole life.”
The depoliticized interpretation of the women’s rights movement pushed by liberals like Valenti and Zeisler is exactly what allowed women like Ivanka to appropriate it.
In her book, Zeisler writes, “The difference between celebrity-branded feminism and a feminist movement as a social and political force is one that is about individuals and the other about systems.”
This is an accurate statement, but it ignores the fact that liberal feminists like Zeisler have also stolen the work of radical feminists who have been fighting for decades to have a strong feminist movement that challenges structural and systemic oppression, without crediting them. The women who pushed to keep feminism political — not just a series of empty neoliberal mantras — were branded as “problematic” or “too controversial” (because they were actually challenging patriarchy), and were smeared by U.S. liberals who are now claiming these arguments as their own.
Feminists who supported the “cool girl” brand of feminism that pushed a saleable version of the movement into the mainstream are now renouncing it, but it’s too late. The third wave taught us that feminism was anything you wanted it to be: a catchphrase, a belief, an outlook on life, a selfie… Anything but a political movement aimed at dismantling patriarchy and male supremacy. Is it any wonder that women like Ivanka Trump decided to capitalize on this message and turn feminism into a brand?
While Ivanka’s “feminism” does nothing for women other than herself, mainstream feminism can’t repudiate her: she is a sign of the times.
As Margaret Carson writes for the Chicago Tribune, even though Ivanka’s feel-good, empty feminism has nothing to offer the rest of the female population, it somehow won its support. Carson writes:
“During the campaign, the favorite Trump became the antidote to her bumptious father’s intemperate remarks, even though she never directly rebuked him. Dad may have been caught in video laughing about groping women and calling them hideous names, but how bad could he be if she loved him? She told female voters how her father had “total respect for women,” how good he was to those who worked for him and how devoted she was to advancing women’s issues such as paid family leave. She gave a boffo speech at the convention in a sheath that would sell out on her website that night, after a performance her father rated a ’10.’ Against all odds, he won the white women’s vote.”
A hollow feminism — devoid of political strategy and purpose — has been in the works for decades. This is known as the backlash. Radical feminists have long warned that both capitalism and patriarchy are infiltrating the movement and defanging it from within, only to find themselves vilified and no-platformed. Now, the same mainstream feminists who built their careers on the depoliticized “marketplace feminism” that Ivanka Trump is making her own want us to believe they are outraged that this happened to our movement.
If Ivankas brand represents “a mauve-colored feminist nightmare,” as Olivia Deng calls it in The Huffington Post, then we need to acknowledge how we got a place where feminism could be co-opted so easily. Yet the countless think pieces that decry Ivanka — as if she managed to trivialize feminism all on her own — fail to make that connection.
To blame one single woman for this mess would be both inaccurate and misogynist. Liberal feminists need to confront the fact that their quest to build careers off this movement by mainstreaming it and watering it down via woke-sounding manifestos, all the while throwing women under the bus, was a strategy that was bound to backfire. It is also a strategy that serves the most privileged feminists, at the expense of the girls and women who are most marginalized and in the most dire need of a strong, political feminist movement.
I have no desire to defend Ivanka Trump. After all, the effects of the Trump Administration will be most felt among working class women, women of colour, immigrant women, and victims of sexual assault like myself. But I am keen to analyze what she represents for feminism in the Trump age so that we can reflect on how we got to this point and how to fight it moving forward.
I call bullshit on liberal feminists’ indignation at Ivanka Trump’s feminism. She didn’t appropriate the feminist mantle. Liberal feminists gave it to her.