Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and Nairobi and the author of the forthcoming book, “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Jill Filipovic: Trump's two leading ladies are both his favorite type of feminist
They are docile, they don't make demands of men and above all they are white and thin
In his press conference last week, in which President Trump ranted and raved that he wasn’t ranting and raving, he answered a question about his wife, Melania. “That’s what I call a very nice question,” he said, apparently relieved to stop talking about his own policies, before saying the first lady feels very strongly about “women’s issues” and “women’s difficulties.”
Trump didn’t specify what these “issues” and “difficulties” might be. One presumes that, despite the phrasing, he probably meant things like equal pay and health care, and not what old men usually mean when they cryptically speak about our “difficulties.”
He then swiftly regressed into thin-skinned indignation, complaining that despite the first lady’s strength as an advocate for women, “she gets so unfairly maligned.”
Observers of this White House may be wondering when, exactly, Mrs. Trump became a feminist advocate. Unless you count her general abdication of some archaic and deeply silly first lady duties – Mrs. Trump prefers her New York penthouse over the White House, prompting concerns she won’t adequately oversee flower arrangements and the annual Easter Egg roll – she isn’t exactly a feminist firebrand.
In framing her as an advocate for women’s rights when there is close to zero evidence she has ever actually advocated for women’s rights, Trump told us more about himself than he did about her: Women are good for photo ops, not for real positions of power.
You see this as well in Trump’s treatment of his daughter, Ivanka (and in Ivanka’s own corporate-friendly, faux feminism). Ivanka tweeted a photo of herself sitting at her dad’s desk in the Oval Office, flanked by the President and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, along with a caption about the importance of giving women “a seat at the table.”
Of course, it is Ivanka’s husband, Jared Kushner, who has an actual position on the Trump team, and not Ivanka herself.
According to Trump, Ivanka is also a “great person – always pushing me to do the right thing.”
It’s tempting to hope that perhaps Trump is right and the two leading ladies in his life are stealth feminist forces in the White House. Ivanka has her Women Who Work campaign, which claims to champion the rights of working women.
And while Melania may attend the Easter Egg roll after all, she’s at least asserting her own desire to be the first lady she wants to be, not the one a sexist history demands.
Dig a little deeper, though, and both Melania and Ivanka don’t look so feminist after all; they look prototypically Trump.
At the rally President Trump held in Florida over the weekend, Melania said that as first lady, she would be supporting initiatives “dear to her heart” which would have an “impact on women and children all around the world”. But in the same rare public address, she borrowed some of her husband’s favorite language, describing the media as “the opposition.”
The Trump behavior doesn’t end there. Earlier this year, Melania filed a lawsuit against the publishers of the Daily Mail, claiming the publication libeled her when it untruthfully said she had worked as an escort. At the heart of the suit is the assertion that the escort lie cost Melania a “once in a lifetime” chance to “multi-million dollar business relationships for a multi-year term during which Plaintiff is one of the most photographed women in the world.”
In other words, it got in the way of her monetizing her new role, though her lawyer insists that the first lady has “no intention of using her position for profit and will not do so,” which somewhat raises the question as to why that wording was used when the suit was filed. Mrs Trump’s lawyers have since refiled the suit with different language.
And Trump, along with his communications team, have been out front in whining that Nordstrom dropped Ivanka’s clothing line for its poor performance – using their positions to bully a company for making a business decision unfriendly to the Trump family.
Ivanka, too, does not wear her self-branded heels to walk her feminist talk. Her own company has been accused by a former employee of not offering maternity leave, despite its namesake’s claimed commitment to working women.
And she championed – and continues to champion – a man who has both bragged about and been accused of sexual assault, has the most white-male-heavy cabinet in three decades, and has spent his first month in office racking up the assaults on women’s rights.
Yes, he’s her father. But if she’s the independent career woman she bills herself as, then she’s hardly required to be a loyal cheerleader for the physical incarnation of male chauvinism.
In his first week, Trump signed the Global Gag Rule, a law that will cut off any US foreign aid to organizations that mention the word abortion or tell women where they can get safe, legal procedures. The law will likely have no impact on the abortion rate, but will almost surely limit access to family planning tools and even HIV treatment, and increase the number of unsafe and potentially deadly abortions.
His pick to oversee Medicaid and Medicare thinks maternity leave should be optional. So much for women who work and also have babies.
His refugee ban was signed under the pretense that Syrian refugees may be strong male ISIS terrorists in disguise, despite the fact that most Syrian refugees are women and children.
Melania and Ivanka provide good cover for Trump’s misogyny because they’re palatable, conventionally feminine women: They’re docile and poised, they don’t make demands of men, and they are above all conventionally beautiful – white and thin.
Now, Trump is using his wife and daughter’s status as American women to feign concern for women while he actively makes life worse for women around the world. And Melania and Ivanka sit passively by.
We know that Melania has always used her position for personal gain, the Trump name to sell her face creams and baubles.
She made a few noises about standing against online bullying as her husband used his massive platform to bully judges, political opponents, immigrants, women, journalists and random people on Twitter. But mostly, she’s been a silent, beautiful companion for husband.
If Melania really wanted to be an unconventional first lady, and Ivanka a first daughter using her role for good, they could do what Trump already claims and dedicate their time to advocating for women’s rights. They could talk publicly about reproductive rights and the right to live free of sexual violence.
Instead, Melania will probably stay in her golden penthouse, suing over spilled face cream and Ivanka will continue to have a seat at the table when her dad lets her – or whenever he spots the chance for a good photo opportunity.