Ivanka Trump would like you to imagine a table.
Hers is long and “adorned with beautiful bouquets of blush-colored peonies.” Family and friends are seated on both sides, gathered to celebrate some undetermined milestone birthday in her future. Now picture your table. What do you hope to have accomplished? How have you impacted your community? She wonders these things, too.
“In reflecting on my marriage and motherhood, my long career as a developer and entrepreneur, what would I say? What would others say about me?” Trump asks in Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success, a book that grew out of a 2013 marketing exercise devised to help her eponymous lifestyle brand sell block-heel pumps and polyester sheaths to women who read Lean In.
This question of legacy is written as an aside, but turns out to be something like the existential crux of the book. Women Who Work could have been—probably was originally intended to be—useless if anodyne bit of self-help pap written for rich white women, but in its post-election context, as a policy vision coming from a special assistant to the president of the United States, it feels considerably more alarming.
Which returns to the question Trump raises early in the book: How will we remember her?
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the five most common occupations for working women in 2014 were administrative assistant (average salary $37,230), elementary and middle school teacher ($56,720), registered nurse ($68,450), home health aide ($22,600), and retail supervisor ($31,450).
With the exception of administrative assistant—which Trump conceptualizes as a starter job for an ambitious college graduate who can climb the ranks by demonstrating “sound judgment”—none of these professions exist in the universe of Women Who Work. The women who work in the book seem to do so entirely in offices or startups run out of their living rooms.
The women of Women Who Work have vague titles (“productivity expert,” “busy entrepreneur”) and vague concerns about identifying their passions. They want to work smarter, not harder and “let go of balance by seizing meaningful moments.”
Trump, relying heavily on quotes from social scientists and other similarly situated women in elite businesses, encourages them to spend time building their networks and finding ways to “experiment with different roles and skills” to better understand their strengths. Life is a sampler plate, so why not try it all?
For women whose financial obligations do not afford them the freedom to explore and experiment—and with 7 in 10 Americans reporting that they have less than $1,000 in savings, that is likely most women—Trump suggests cultivating curiosity. “I personally love the word ‘curious,’” she writes. She tends to her curiosity by reading and listening to podcasts, “which can trigger lots of interests and ideas.” She enjoys TED Talks as “snackable bits of information.”
This could be dismissed as benign schlock if it weren’t coming from a high-level White House official arguing that her work inside the administration will help “unleash the full power of women and girls.”
Women who work the register at Walmart, change bed clothes for elderly patients, or write on the internet already listen to podcasts on subjects unrelated to their day jobs. Their curiosity doesn’t make them more money—or create more opportunity—when their wages are locked in at the federal minimum and their unions are weakened by right to work laws.
The book’s framing of what its advice is supposed to produce for you—and its premise that nearly every woman is just one good idea or introduction away from making a career leap—also takes a more punitive turn on the question of success and failure. Trump, much like her father, seems to think that being born into a very wealthy real estate family only got her part of the way to becoming very wealthy through real estate. The rest, she explains, was grit:
My father always said, if you love what you do, and work really, really hard, you will succeed. This is a fundamental principle of creating and perpetuating a culture of success, and also a guiding light for me personally.
I also believe that passion, combined with perseverance, is a great equalizer, more important than education or experience in achieving your version of success. I know plenty of brilliant people with immense potential who fell short of expectations (theirs and others!) because their competition was more inspired to succeed.
This prosperity gospel bootstrapping bullshit would be risible coming from any wealthy scion positioning herself as an envoy for women’s economic lives. Coming from the daughter of a dunce who managed to “succeed” despite his many well-documented financial and moral fuck-ups, and who conceives of fatherhood mainly as a means of transferring privilege, it is repugnant.
When Women Who Work moves from airy advice about self-help and journaling to more practical chapters about flexible scheduling and returning to work after having children, it reads oddly like warmed-over Hillary Clinton speeches. Though while Clinton, like Trump, has a tendency to talk about women’s work lives—and frame policies—through the narrow lens of upper-middle-class women’s interests, their struggles around work-life balance, she did include labor supports (however inadequate) for domestic workers as part of her economic agenda. Even though Clinton refused to commit to a $15 minimum wage, she did propose to move it to $12 as part of an agenda to improve the lives of working women.
The mere existence of low-wage work is acknowledged once in Women Who Work, with the bland assessment that “we need to recognize these important realities and create policies that champion families, enabling the American family to thrive.” The single mention of a nanny comes mid-way through, in a brief aside about the wonderful photos the author’s nanny takes of Trump’s children. Even then, her labor is presented as ephemeral, easily erased. “I’m sure in ten years I’ll convince myself I took them!” Trump writes.
It is not exactly surprising that the ideas and advice in a book written by a woman born into wealth and presented a business empire as her destiny don’t apply to the lives led by a majority of working women in this country. No one expected Ivanka Trump to channel Barbara Ehrenreich. What is a bit more surprising, though, is that Women Who Work also feels inapplicable to women negotiating their place in rarified fields like real estate or Silicon Valley. The book manages to fail both as a reflection of women’s work in real terms—a better title might have been Women Who Aspire To Be Niche Entrepreneurs—and as a manual of advice for elite women who more closely resemble Trump herself. She couldn’t even manage to copy Sheryl Sandberg right.
Trump seems enamored with Silicon Valley and gig economy startups, but has nothing to say about sexism and the kinds of gender discrimination experienced by women at Uber or Kleiner Perkins. The words “sexism” and “discrimination” do not even appear in the book.
Neither does “lawsuit.” The book describes cultural and “narrative” problems that limit women’s opportunities in the workplace, but never addresses the reality of active discrimination—the kind rectified by legal action. (Like the 20 suits brought against Trump’s father and his companies, as an example.)
If you refuse to see what the bulk of the female workforce actually looks like—or the material issues they face—then you certainly can’t answer to its problems. Everything old is new again.
Women Who Work has very little to say about women’s labor, but quite a lot about Ivanka Trump.
She wrote the book in part, she says, to use her platform “to dramatically advance an important conversation that benefits parents and families nationwide.” Now in the White House, Trump writes that she’ll “work harder than ever” toward this goal.
This, presumably, is what she would like to be remembered for at that table she’s visualizing. But the most prominent public role she’s played to date has been as surrogate for a presidential campaign, and now presidency, defined by its racism, misogyny, and a deeply regressive vision for America.
In its first 100 days, the Trump administration has rolled back workplace protections for women, overseen hundreds of detentions and deportations that have torn mothers from their children, appointed a woman who denies the science of birth control to oversee federal family planning programs, signed an executive order allowing states to withhold funding from one of the largest reproductive health care providers in the country, and proposed shuttering or scaling back domestic and international programs focused on violence prevention and educational opportunities for women and girls.
Ivanka Trump cannot answer for any of this. Those bouquets of blush-colored peonies will not cover up the stench of her complicity.