Among the many unconventionalities of Donald Trump’s campaign was the way he used his daughter as a surrogate spouse. He relied on Ivanka Trump to appeal to women. Her vision—on everything from parental leave to affordable workplace attire—was supposed to speak to women’s needs. Her professional success, nepotistic as it might be, provided irrefutable evidence that, as Trump himself put it, “Nobody has more respect for women than I do. Nobody.”
Ivanka was well-positioned for the role. In November 2014, as her father was contemplating his bid for the presidency, she had begun her transition from a semiprivate person with a job and a family to a brand with a job and family. She coined the hashtag #WomenWhoWork to herald the launch of a lifestyle company comprising a website, clothing line, and upcoming book designed to “inspire and empower women to architect lives that they love, lives that are uniquely their own and not based on the expectations of anyone other than themselves.” This message, a polished shell encasing a sticky center of word-fluff, is similar in content to many of the other female empowerment campaigns that have become ubiquitous in the past half-decade.
Empowerment feminism comes in two main flavors, both of which put the onus of change on women. Men, as perpetrators of gender inequality or potential collaborators in the fight against it, rarely make an appearance. The first strain is best embodied by the Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty,” one of many successful recent advertising campaigns that encourage women to work on self-acceptance. In a 2013 commercial, watched more than 67 million times on Facebook, Dove tells women that they would be better off if they spent less time “analyzing and trying to fix the things that aren’t quite right” about their looks and “more time appreciating the things that we do like.” Rarely do such messages suggest that women might stop and consider why so many of them struggle with self-acceptance or how these companies helped create this problem in the first place.
The other type of empowerment feminism is focused on professional achievement; it tells women that success can be theirs if they only work harder, act more like men, and learn to better balance the demands of their jobs with the demands of their personal lives. Such messages appear in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, Arianna Huffington’s Thrive, and a number of elite conferences designed to boost women who are already on top. “Our motto here … is ‘Onward, upward, and inward,’ ” said Huffington to the crowd at the 2014 conference “Thrive: A Third Metric Live Event.” Empowerment feminism is lousy with these types of nebulous, and dizzying, maxims.
Ivanka’s #WomenWhoWork campaign represents this trend at its most rarified—a whole movement made of exquisitely groomed, beatific women posing in stage-managed settings with their photogenic children. Their most pressing problems involve the management of abundance—too much career momentum, too many dimpled toddlers waiting for them at home—as opposed to wanting, or needing, anything that they don’t already have.
Trump and his team enlisted Ivanka to court women, and she, and her brand, got to work. She appeared in a number of campaign ads and on news shows, often stumping for him on family issues. Ivanka’s speech at the GOP convention was the campaign’s signature “Hey, ladies” moment, positioning her as a gracious, high-heeled siren whom women would surely find irresistible. And many women, nearly all white, apparently did: a range of white women, in fact, from women near Ivanka’s tax bracket to women who themselves were not likely to purchase a fitted sheath or attempt to balance work and family while looking “impossibly stylish.” The Trump-voting women who were seduced by the Ivanka brand were either satisfied with the status quo or drawn to Trump’s promise that the new one he would herald would uniquely benefit them.
But one of the many frightening takeaways of the Trump campaign has been that Ivanka’s “empowerment feminism” turned out to have an appalling ability to coexist with abject sexism. The Women of Trump website—bedecked with a pink high-heel favicon—calls Trump’s “women problem” a “myth.” They claim that his only sins have been rhetorical, and such rhetoric should be forgiven because “he‘s not working off a TelePrompTer or a script fine tuned by a consultant and focus groups.” Just “look at the respect he shows the women in his life – his daughters and his wife.” Yes, just look.
Over the past few years, a number of insightful critiques have been launched against empowerment feminism and how it fails women through the two-step dance of distraction and deception. In April, Jia Tolentino wrote in the New York Times Magazine that advertising campaigns and corporate conferences “can be actively disempowering: It’s a series of objects and experiences you can purchase while the conditions determining who can access and accumulate power stay the same.” The next month, critic Andi Zeisler published We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. The book is part history of how feminism went from drab to sexy and therefore marketable, part call to arms to reject the individualist self-improvement promised to us by the “empowerment” movement and back to working together for systemic change. In July, Slate editor Jessica Winter published her novel Break in Case of Emergency, in which the main character, Jen, works at a nonprofit that is aimed at empowering women and helmed by an egomaniacal lifestyle guru. The book takes particular aim at the word salad that such organizations painstakingly cook up to market their empty causes and how miserably this gobbledygook fails in its goal to help women.
Prior to the Trump campaign, many of these critiques took place in the realm of the abstract. While they may have helped us understand how empowerment feminism wasn’t working for us, we were still short on concrete, graphic examples of how it was actively working against us. But with each new revelation about Trump’s grotesque attitudes toward, and alleged mistreatment of, women, Ivanka’s dusty pink, get-it-girl encouragements started to feel like a dangerous misdirection and a threat in their own right. As the Trump campaign progressed, that polished shell was no longer merely tasked with packaging sticky word fluff but also her father’s, and his many fans’, poisonous worldview.
Over the course of Donald’s bid for the presidency, Ivanka’s Instagram account remained cheerfully apolitical, mostly opting for videos of her giggling kids or glamour shots of her work outfits instead of campaign dispatches or voting exhortations. As the months went on, the dissonance between the grotesque headlines about her father abusing women and her stated ethos of “inspir[ing] women to architect lives they love” became more and more extreme. The day her father went on an early- morning tweetstorm about Alicia Machado’s sex tape, Ivanka’s social media engagement included tweets linking to stories about “off-duty habits that’ll make you smarter” and “5 #bodylanguage tips for your next job interview.” On Instagram she posted a photo of a burgundy leather purse from her line, stuffed with a large card that read “WOMEN WHO DO ITALL.”
During this period, Ivanka’s polished message morphed from uncanny to scary: It became harrowing proof that her bubblegum feminism could, in the eyes of many Americans, dress up the worldview of men for whom pussy-grabbing is a sport. This “advocate” for working women remained mostly silent on the sexual harassment and assault allegations against her father, apart from one glib defense. Search for “sexual harassment” on her website, dedicated in part to helping women navigate the workplace, and this is what comes up: “No posts match your search. Try again!”
By the end, evidence began to emerge that Ivanka was aware of the potential negative impact of her father’s behavior. But it wasn’t women she sought to defend; it was her brand. This past weekend, the New York Times reported that Ivanka sat for an ad for her dad’s campaign that was intended to target suburban women, but she didn’t want it aggressively promoted in news releases because she feared it would hurt her brand. (Trump’s spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, denied this.)
Either way, Ivanka is now seeking to make it clear that she believes the empowerment of women can, and should, remain apolitical. “My advocacy of women, trying to empower women in all aspects of their life, started long before this presidential campaign did,” she told Good Morning America shortly before Election Day. “I’ve never politicized that message. People who are seeking to politicize it because they may disagree with the politics of my father, there’s nothing I can do to change that.”
Except, of course she politicized it. How else to describe the behavior of a woman who got onstage at the Republican National Convention; made a series of promises to working women, many of which were built on lies; and then, afterward, tweeted a link to purchase the $138 pink sheath (nearly exactly the same shade as the background color on her website) she was wearing?
Then came a series of revelations about both her and her father’s history of not guaranteeing employees or contractors paid leave, as well as the release of their shoddy maternity leave and child care plans. The former is financially untenable, and the latter would exclude many. Turns out that pink sheath was her most substantial offer after all.
Ivanka could still end up delivering on paid leave and child care. I’d be very pleasantly surprised. Should this happen, we would all do ourselves a favor to remember that this victory wasn’t brought to us by #WomenWhoWork, but by decades of hard work by women who understand that real power is something you fight for rather than summon from within. As women steel themselves for the many battles the next four years will inevitably bring, this is a lesson we can’t afford to forget.
*Correction, Nov. 11, 2016: Due to a production error, this caption originally misidentified Jared Kushner as John Kushner.