Ivanka Trump’s New Book Exploits and Cheapens Feminism

In her world, the possibilities for working women are endless—so long as they have full-time household help.

Ivanka Trump
Ivanka Trump listens at the beginning of a policy and strategy forum at the White House on Feb. 3 in Washington.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

It’s a sign of how perilous and debased American life has become that people are putting faith in Ivanka Trump, creator of a line of mediocre synthetic workwear, to head off fascism. It’s tempting to hope that she’s secretly appalled by her father’s reactionary politics, since before his catastrophic rise, she seemed a standard Manhattan liberal. (Prior to Donald Trump’s campaign, the only time I saw Ivanka in person was at the wedding of a major gay Democratic donor.) Shortly after the election, artists marched on her New York City apartment building, imploring her to intervene with her father on behalf of cosmopolitan values. Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, met with her after the inauguration. Richard Painter, George W. Bush’s chief ethics adviser, has slammed Ivanka’s corporate conflicts of interest but doesn’t want her to leave her job as a special assistant to the president: “We need her to counteract Steve Bannon,” he told the Guardian.

To some extent, Ivanka has been a moderating influence because Bannon’s thuggish nationalism isn’t great for her brand. But it’s a mistake to imagine too much daylight between her and her father. Their relationship, at least viewed from afar, resembles that of Joffrey Baratheon and Cersei Lannister, but with the generations reversed.* He’s an erratic, sadistic child. She, with her superior self-control and glimmers of human feeling, tries to manage him as best she can. In the end, however, they’re on the same side, engaged in the same project of self-glorification and personal enrichment. Both exploit and cheapen what they touch. In his case, America. In hers, feminism.

On Tuesday, Ivanka Trump published her second book, Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success. As the New York Times reports, “Women Who Work” was originally a catchphrase developed by her apparel company to make the brand seem accessible to ordinary women: “Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ had just topped the best-seller charts, and Ms. Trump’s team wanted its own catchy yet accessible slogan.” Sandberg has often been criticized for her privilege and for not paying sufficient heed to the structural forces that hold women back, particularly if they’re not rich, white, and heterosexual. (After her husband died, Sandberg acknowledged that leaning in is harder when you don’t have a partner.) Ivanka makes Sandberg look like Rosa Luxemburg. Here is how she describes the women she’s speaking to in Women Who Work:

We’re aspiring to do work that we love, work that inspires us, and we’re pursuing our passions and unabashedly making them priorities. We’re training for marathons and learning to code. We’re planning adventures with our kids and weekend getaways with our friends.

This is not a book about policy or about navigating the minefield of male-dominated corporate culture. Much of it is a celebration of the unlimited possibilities open to working women when they have full-time household help. At one point, Ivanka describes how much she valued having a standing Wednesday lunch date with her daughter before she started kindergarten. “She came into the office—she prefers my ‘pink’ Ivanka Trump office to my real estate one, in part because it has a kids desk that folds out of the wall, complete with treats, toys, colored pencils, and markers,” she writes. Of course, toddlers don’t just swing by the office—someone has to bring them. If you’re able to hire that person, you’ve got the major problem facing most working parents licked.

In Ivanka Trump’s world, working women’s most pressing challenges are the “narrative” about their place in the culture and their insufficient retail choices. In a chapter that begins with an epigraph by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia, Ivanka describes one of her first achievements for womenkind: “I had already taken a first step towards reimagining the options available to modern, self-purchasing women when in 2007 I launched my fine jewelry collection.” But there was more to be done. Ivanka realized there was an “enormous disconnect between how professional women looked, how we lived, how we spent our time and sought to express ourselves, and the apparel and accessories that were available to us.” She stepped into the breach.

As vapid as Women Who Work is—and it is really vapid—there is a subtle political current running through it, one that helps explains how the socially liberal Ivanka can work for her misogynist ogre of a father. Beneath the inspirational quotes from Oprah and the Dalai Lama and the you-go-girl cheerleading, the message of Women Who Work is that people get what they deserve. “My father has always said, if you love what you do, and work really, really hard, you will succeed,” she writes at one point, adding that passion is “a great equalizer, more important than education or experience in creating your version of success.” Elsewhere, she quotes the management guru Stephen Covey: “You choose success. You choose failure. You choose courage. You choose fear.” Both she and her father, of course, had the good sense to choose to be heirs to a real estate fortune.

Ivanka contrasts “proactive” people, who are “passionate and productive,” with “negative people,” those who are “swayed by the external and are frequently the victim of circumstance.” Her worldview, it turns out, is not so different from her father’s. Both see society through the lens of quasi-mystical corporate self-help, the sort pioneered by Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking and a major influence on Donald Trump. In their schema, success is proof of virtue and people are to blame for their own misfortune. If Ivanka Trump hasn’t expressed any outrage at the cruelties her father is inflicting on the poor and vulnerable, it may well be because she doesn’t feel any.

Some women who worked for Ivanka were surprised to see her present herself as a crusader for women’s work-life integration. In October, Marissa Velez Kraxberger, former creative director at Ivanka Trump’s company, wrote on Facebook about how she and her team had to fight “long and hard” to get Ivanka to agree to grant eight weeks of maternity leave. Kraxberger, who’d helped develop the Women Who Work branding, was aghast it was marshaled on behalf of Donald Trump’s campaign:

The company and the #WomenWhoWork platform we created was meant to inspire and encourage women to work at all aspects of their lives and live the lives they wanted to live, but before our eyes [Ivanka] took the platform and made it all about herself … and now it’s being dragged along side of this man who could potentially be the face of our country.

The day before Women Who Work was published, Donald Trump appointed an anti-abortion activist who has said “contraception doesn’t work” to oversee the country’s only federal family planning program. If anything proves that Ivanka Trump is her father’s daughter, it is that she has the audacity to present herself as a champion of women’s ambition and equality while serving in his administration. Her refusal to acknowledge any contradiction between her feminism, however superficial it is, and her father’s reactionary politics almost feels like gaslighting.

None of this is to say Ivanka hasn’t struggled over the last year and a half. “During extremely high-capacity times, like during the campaign, I went into survival mode: I worked and I was with my family; I didn’t do much else,” she writes. “Honestly, I wasn’t treating myself to a massage or making much time for self-care.” Nevertheless, she persisted. Now she may be the most powerful woman in the world, propping up the father who once publicly agreed with Howard Stern that she was a “piece of ass.” There’s a lesson in here somewhere. It’s not an empowering one.

*Correction, May 2, 2017: This piece originally misspelled Game of Thrones character Cersei Lannister’s first name. (Return.)