Is Ivanka Trump the new feminist icon? Advocates are skeptical
Women still smarting from the impact of the glass ceiling last November, meet your new feminist opinion leader: Ivanka Trump, the first daughter, presidential adviser, and handbag designer, on Tuesday released a book called “Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success.”
Conceived before her father’s campaign for president, the book positions Trump as a champion of women’s empowerment and the new face of working motherhood as she aims to “move the narrative away from the outdated and ill-informed caricature of how we look, dress, act, work and view our lives.”
Suffice it to say, it’s being greeted with skepticism — and some curiosity — by those who were already advocating for women’s advancement in the workplace.
“I’m intrigued by what she could possibly have to say,” said Deborah Pine, who oversees Bentley University’s Center for Women and Business.
While Ivanka Trump created an eponymous fashion line and held a top position at her father’s real estate business, she cannot, because of the life she was born into, be representative of women in the workplace, experts said. Raised in a gilded tower with an inherited brand and unlimited connections, she had uncommon advantages to smooth her way.
“I think it’s hard not to just feel cynical about it,” said Meg Bond, a psychologist who directs the Center for Women at Work at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “Most of the people I know would have a hard time taking her seriously.”
That said, readers may be curious, given their interest in the enigmatic Ivanka and the paucity of leading women in business to emulate.
“I think people are intrigued by her,” said Pine. “She’s got this persona we haven’t quite figured out. There’s such a lack of female role models at senior levels that women really need those and are looking for those.”
In her book, more self-help than feminist theory, Trump says her generation is the first to pursue multidimensional lives, working hard at parenting as well as their careers, and enjoying fully realized lives. Arguing that being a mother makes her a more effective leader and a better manager, she encourages women not to compartmentalize their work lives or to downplay their femininity.
“In rewriting the rules of success, we are prioritizing our passions and families alongside our work without apology,” she writes.
The world has been looking to Ivanka Trump to offer a steadying hand and a softening influence on her father, President Trump, whose administration is run almost entirely by men.
She has elevated issues like affordable child care and family leave, while pledging to be a voice for women’s empowerment in the White House, where she now works as an unpaid adviser. It remains unclear, though, what measure of influence she actually wields.
“On the one hand, she seems like this incredibly powerful force in his life and perhaps one of the few people that actually has a major influence,” said Lauren Stiller Rikleen, an author and speaker who runs the Massachusetts-based Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership. “But none of that seems to be playing out. ”
Women interviewed about her book said they would be thrilled to see her emerge as a forceful advocate for women’s issues in the White House.
“If she really does shift and understand and promote policies that help working women, I would welcome that,” said Bond.
What they don’t want is an exceptionally well-dressed figurehead.
Last week, Ivanka Trump joined the president’s live video conference congratulating International Space Station commander Peggy Whitson, who just broke the American record for the time spent in space. Her fellow panelist: NASA scientist Kate Rubins, the first person to sequence DNA in space. The same week, she appeared alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel and International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde at an international summit on women’s entrepreneurship. There, members of the audience scoffed when she called her father, whose campaign was marred allegations of harassment and by some boorish references to women, a “tremendous champion of working families.”
“That’s an indication that she’s got a big hill to climb or image to overcome,” said Pine.
Trump’s foray into feminist advocacy seems to be aimed at solidifying her brand as an exemplary high-powered working mother — passionate about her work, as committed to her children as her career ambition.
Trump launched a “Women Who Work” web page and campaign in 2014, linking online sales of her dresses and accessories with a brand celebrating working women. In addition to dresses and style tips, the site offers inspirational interviews and aspirational videos of working women, like Lauren Bush Lauren. The founder of a nonprofit that fights hunger, she is the granddaughter of former president George H. W. Bush and daughter-in-law of fashion designer Ralph Lauren.
“Women who work” is hardly a novel notion, of course. Half of all families with children have a mother who’s a breadwinner — contributing at least 40 percent of the couple’s joint earnings, said Julie Anderson, a senior research associate at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C.
The median income for women who work outside the home is $37,752 a year, she noted. Bond surmises that the demographic target for Trump’s book skews richer than that.
Bond took issue with one of the signature themes of Trump’s book, that “the only person who can create a life you’ll love is you.”
“That is just inherently a privileged stance,” Bond said. “If you’re low income and you’re in a low-wage job, have a boss who doesn’t listen to you, or conditions at work where you’re always worried you’re going to lose your job, being assertive has costs.”
“The workplace is terribly broken,” said Beth Monaghan, a founder of the public relations firm InkHouse. “We keep asking women to change so that they can be successful in a biased workplace when what we really need is the workplace to change.”
Presumably, Ivanka Trump never faced the most fundamental challenge most women confront in trying to launch a business: securing capital, said Susan G. Duffy, executive director of the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership at Babson College. Only 2.7 percent of venture capital goes to companies with female founders, she said.
“If she started out with capital, she started out at a completely different place than most women entrepreneurs find themselves in,” Duffy said. “God love her, but that immediately separates her from the pack of the everywoman entrepreneur.”
Massachusetts’ former acting governor Jane Swift said Trump will likely face some of the kind of criticism that buffeted Sheryl Sandberg, the author of the 2013 book “Lean In.” Sandberg, the Facebook chief operating officer, was faulted for neglecting the real-world challenges of lower-income women who have no choice but to work.
However, Swift said she welcomes Trump’s voice in the debate over work-life balance. Having endured withering criticism over her own juggle — giving birth to twins while running the Commonwealth — Swift concluded that there’s “very little progress to be made by working mothers criticizing other working mothers.”
“I’m not going to fall into the same trap that I was very resentful of,” she said.
“I have never been the type of working mother that Ivanka Trump was, but there’s no doubt in my mind that she’s faced some really difficult days and choices and that her experiences also have value,” she added.
As long as Trump puts those experiences in context, she said, “then, the more the merrier.”