Saturday, May 06, 2017

Is Ivanka The New Hillary?

Nina Burleigh argues so in a recent Newsweek article:  Both Ivanka and Hillary grabbed power in the White House that was not theirs, both protected sexist male relatives, both got to power via nepotism,  both solicited foreign donations to their foundations (evil!), both want poor women to make baskets (start firms), both are cyphers, and both are ethically challenged.

It's not exactly a fun read, that piece, but it's a great example to take apart for the purposes of feminist analysis.

To begin with, the author does not mention the role that Jared Kushner,  Ivanka's husband,  plays in the Trump administration or the role her brothers may play in letting Donald still have his business ventures.  The difference, of course, is that Hillary and Ivanka bear the stain of Eve.

This becomes more obvious when we start looking at the article in more detail.  Let's take one paragraph out for that purpose, the first one:

Ever since Ivanka Trump spoke at the Republican National Convention, people have been confused. Looking cool in one of her trademark sheaths (she would soon tweet on how to “get the look”), the daughter of the notoriously sexist billionaire took the stage on a steamy night in Cleveland and talked about working women and their needs. Unease instantly prickled necks on the convention floor, where applause was polite but restrained. The looks on many faces seemed to say: Did I just hear her say “affordable child care?” Who let a feminazi Democrat in here? Lock her up!

Despite that "feminazi" reference,  the idea that Ivanka might be a secret feminist is not in Burleigh's list of things Hillary and Ivanka share, perhaps because Burleigh really dislikes gender equality.  She later calls the promotion of entrepreneurship for women by the pejorative term of "poor women selling baskets," and calls the activity of Hillary Clinton's ambassador for women and girls "traipsing" around the world to "push" leaders to invite more women into their economies.

Now that we know where she stands on that topic*, note the reference to Ivanka Trump "looking cool in one of her trademark sheaths."  Had she looked sweaty and bothered, that would have been a workable mistake, too!  Had she worn an old flour sack, that would have merited a few paragraphs!

Indeed, anything about how a woman dresses or does not dress is grist for the writing mill of anti-feminists, because everything a woman does in the public sphere is open to criticism, from her voice to her hair to whether her face moves too much or too little (Burleigh gives us plenty of stuff on that later).  That's because women are not supposed to be in the public sphere in the first place.

Note that Hillary never flogged her own product lines, whereas Ivanka did.  This difference doesn't count as a difference, because the case Burleigh is really building here is about what very untrustworthy women share, the women who are ethically challenged, but also cyphers, the women who somehow climb up that family tree** and take on roles they are not supposed to take in a patriarchal society.

The first paragraph I quote states that people have been confused ever since Ivanka Trump took the stage at the Republican National Convention.  Confused about what, exactly?

While thinking of the possible answers to that assertion, assuming it were true, I realized why I felt that something over and above various sentences was so wrong with this article:

Burleigh confuses us by presenting these two women in isolation from those who pulled the strings of power.  Thus, we are not seeing Hillary as the First Lady of a president called Bill Clinton, who only appears in the role of a would-be-rapist that the vicious Hillary protects, and we are not seeing Ivanka as the daughter of our current megalomaniac president who could kick her out of the White House the very minute he desired to do so.  And if he decided to do that, she could do absolutely nothing.

We are not shown who wields most of the power.  Instead we are presented a picture of these two mysterious, rather frightening women who simply grabbed power on their own and misused it on their own, and that's why people are confused!

It's clever, in an odd way, to photo-shop the men out of the picture, as it's clever to ignore all the differences between Hillary Clinton and Ivanka Trump:

She has had a full political career after her White House years, she was the First Lady, and the role of a First Lady is a somewhat established one, whereas there's no such established role for the First Daughter.  Or the First Son-in-Law, come to that.

Likewise, Hillary Clinton is a trained lawyer who had experience in the fields of health and welfare before she worked on Bill Clinton's failed attempt to reform the health care sector.  The qualifications of Ivanka Trump to sit in when foreign leaders are in town are less clear.

It's less clever, but perhaps necessary for snark to ridicule attempts to empower poor women in poor countries or to suggest that somehow one should never ever solicit foreign donations, even when the foundation one runs is purely charitable.

The article left me with a strong feeling that it is intended as a fairy tale warning written for women who consider entering politics:  Both Ivanka and Hillary are too guarded, unknowable cyphers, not letting others see their true selves.  But never mind, through the guard we shall storm and what do we find then?


And much like Hillary, who relied on unctuous helpings of personal charm and public “listening” to balance out distrust with her self-protective stance, Ivanka uses an Instagram account loaded with shots of her engaged in the duties of mother and wife to occlude the realities of her seriously powerful life. Only time will tell whether, as with Hillary, resisting the inevitable public urge to breach that shield becomes an obsession.

See how even proving one's feminine bona fides does not save Ivanka Trump from the Hillarization process?

Perhaps most crucially, Burleigh suspects that these two women have their own secret motivations.  That is simply not allowed for women whose traditional role is that of the admiring female relative of a powerful man.  Jared Kushner, now, that's a different kettle of fish.

That, friends, is my feminist critique of the article.  That I presented it does not mean I am comfortable with the family dynasty Trump is building.*** But the reason does not lie in Ivanka's gender.

Neither have I ever been comfortable with the traditional views about the role of the First Lady:   She both is and is not an employee of the president,  she is expected to embody for all us women the desirable characteristics of the traditional wife (and mother), and she is expected to keep busy with some project that not a single person ever could criticize (though the Limbaughs of this world will try).


*  She would like famous women to be more vocal on the condition of women in Saudi Arabia and similar theocratic states.  And so would I, to be honest.  But that omission does not justify Burleigh making fun of the attempts to empower poor women in general.

**  The only real pathway to political power for women has traditionally been through family.  Elizabeth I would not have led England without the accident of her birth as daughter of Henry VIII, Benazir Bhutto would not have led Pakistan had she not been the daughter of Zulfikar Bhutto, a prior Prime Minister of Pakistan.  Indira Gandhi got power partly because she was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India after the British reign ended.

Many, many other examples exist, including within the United States.  To then ridicule women who come into power that way requires that one at least address the question if it's equally easy for women and men to access power through the more traditional routes.  My guess is that it is not, and articles like this one are part of the explanation.  They reinforce any deep discomfort someone might have with powerful women in politics, whatever route they used to get there.

**  Family dynasties are what often happens in dictatorships where the dictator assigns family members to run various departments because that is the next-best alternative to his personal leadership. I am opposed to them, but my opposition does not extend only to female family members.