Early in Ivanka Trump’s airy new advice book, Women Who Work: Rewriting The Rules For Success, there is a section titled “Begin with the End in Mind.” In these pages, Ivanka advises readers searching for their goals to envision how they would like to be remembered later in life.
Ivanka conducts this exercise by imagining herself at a “milestone birthday” table, surrounded by “blush-colored peonies” and “the people who’ve mattered most to me”: her family, her oldest friends. At such an idyllic future fête, she wonders, “What would others say about me?”
Ivanka portrays herself in Women Who Work as an entrepreneur who has made it her “life’s work to inspire and empower women in every aspect of their lives.” But as the cast at Saturday Night Live (along with perhaps half the country) have asked: How? The primary example of Ivanka’s feminist advocacy is her Women Who Work initiative, after which the book is named.
Women Who Work, which Ivanka claims “became a movement,” was launched as a content marketing campaign for her fashion business, which sells mid-range clothing and accessories that are as risk-averse and unexciting as this 212-page book, a collection of career, productivity, and leadership advice cobbled together from best-selling leadership texts, TED talks, and short interviews that have already been published on her fashion company’s website.
From the start, Ivanka’s feminist avatar has had dollar signs in her eyes. “My company was not just meeting the lifestyle needs of today’s modern professional woman with versatile, well-designed products; it was celebrating those needs at a price point she could afford,” Ivanka recalls in the book. Those needs may have included sandals or a purse with a phone charger in it.
None of the advice in Women Who Work is particularly radical, and unlike her previous book, The Trump Card, there are few personal anecdotes that bring Ivanka to life on these pages. Although Ivanka says the book was written before the election, the last few pages of Women Who Work read like a preview of her White House agenda, touching on the necessity of funding for female entrepreneurs and paid parental leave and acknowledging the gender pay gap.
Those are important issues, but look between this book’s stitching to find the topics Ivanka chooses not to address. Somewhere between the eternal pursuit of Inbox Zero and the need for more female leaders lie serious problems that hold professional women back, like institutional sexism, harassment, and racism–issues that have permeated her father’s campaign and presidency like cigarette smoke on a wool coat. There are plenty of leadership books that fall short with this kind of stuff, but Ivanka had a front-row seat to her father’s gendered and racially abusive campaigning as this book was being written. She stood by him the whole time.
Is the absence of these topics in her book the result of cluelessness or fear? A likely culprit is privilege. In Ivanka’s world, if you make the right lists, work hard, network, and “stake your claim,” you will probably break the glass ceiling. If only the real world worked like that for everyone else.
Crumbs of Ivanka’s out-of-touchness are sprinkled throughout the book. During the campaign, Ivanka laments, she was so busy she “wasn’t treating myself to a massage.” In another section, Ivanka writes,“Time is the great equalizer,” quoting a rich friend, ostensibly oblivious to the fact that many women don’t have in-home help like she does, or can’t access childcare (which they still might not be able to afford under Trump), or have to work 60 hours a week for shamefully low wages sewing dresses that might have her name on them.
At one point in Women Who Work, Ivanka recalls advice passed along by her husband, Jared Kushner. Life, Kushner tells his wife, is a marathon, not a sprint. Perhaps Ivanka is playing a long game–looking far ahead into the future and plotting how she wants to be remembered: a loving mother and wife, a dedicated entrepreneur, and an advocate for women, as she reminds us throughout the book.
How Ivanka, our newly crowned assistant to the president, ends up “providing empowerment” to women as a member of the White House has yet to be seen. Ivanka appears to be involved with a global fund being developed to support female entrepreneurs through a World Bank initiative, the details of which are not yet clear. What we do know is that in the past 100 days Donald Trump has made a number of attempts to roll back women’s rights.
Meanwhile, far-right pundits and racists think Ivanka is having a moderating effect on Trump, and are raising their ire against her (and Jared, too). Her defensive strategy appears to be smiling like she’s auditioning for a toothpaste commercial while providing gracious non-answers to interview questions, insisting that behind the scenes she disagrees with her father but rarely disclosing what she actually disagrees with him about. This is not doing wonders for her reputation as a women’s champion.
Ivanka seems to have taken her husband’s long-haul advice to heart. She has dug her heels into the carpets at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, serving a ratings-obsessed president who seems as racist as his newfound presidential hero Andrew Jackson. Who knows what Ivanka’s end game is. Maybe she hopes to emerge after four or eight years of public disparagement as some sort of heroic advocate for the XX, or more powerfully positioned to take back the brands that are patiently waiting for her—a pot of gold on the other side of a storm.
Yes, Ivanka Trump the human still has a financial interest in Ivanka Trump the business. She sometimes markets that business by wearing Ivanka Trump-brand merchandise—most recently on the global stage in Berlin. Ivanka may have decided to donate the income from her book to charity, but the attention it receives still benefits a brand that is literally and symbolically linked to her name. (A well-organized and passionate boycott continues to apply pressure on retailers who carry Ivanka Trump wares.)
Though she is not making a salary in her new White House role (which might be allowing her to skirt nepotism laws), the exposure and the access to power it affords her, in the long term, may be worth a bundle, depending upon what her laminated reputation looks like after swimming through this swamp. Ethicists think Ivanka should shut her business down, given the conflict concerns that have already arisen due to her refusal to truly divest herself from her companies. Nevertheless, in her book, Ivanka proudly discusses her work on the Old Post Office (a hotel close to the White House that has attracted foreign dignitaries hoping to curry favor with the president, and in which she still retains a financial stake) as well as other Trump properties, describing them in brochure-like language.
But let us return to that peony-lined table in Ivanka’s mind where her family and friends have collected in the future, appraising her and her life. One thing Ivanka has proven is that she is loyal to the Trump family to a capital T. “Dad, you never cease to amaze me!” Ivanka writes at the end of her book. “You have taught me to dream big and then surpass those goals—and to never, ever give up.” At the peony party, praise for Ivanka will no doubt be quite high. But what about beyond the petaled fringes of that gathering?
In the business world, it is easier to optically align oneself with a cause: join a board, speak on a panel, launch an “authentic” marketing statement and use it to sell a watered-down, nonthreatening feminism as wobbly as a pair of cheaply made shoes. But in politics, you generally have to take a stand, and you have to take action. Perhaps Ivanka will find an ethical way to spur a global entrepreneurs fund, or convince Congress to pass a parental leave act that includes both mothers and partners, or support a child care bill that doesn’t primarily benefit the rich. There are signs that she wants to make such things happen (and she’s not the only one).
Here’s something I don’t necessarily think was absent from Ivanka’s book, but is important to consider: Empowering women is about more than “women’s” issues. Rolling back protections for women workers isn’t feminist, and neither is denying climate change or discriminating against Muslims in our airports. Trying to curtail a free press is not feminist, and questioning our constitutional set of checks and balances is not feminist. Is Ivanka aligned with these attempts? History is still being written. But one thing certain is that there are a great many tables in the future, perhaps not all so well-adorned with flowers, for her to sit at, and be judged.