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15 May 2017

Is Ivanka Trump the feminist we deserve?

The fauxminist-in-chief's book is unintentionally a hoot. But shouldn't we be laughing at ourselves as well? 

By glosswitch Glosswitch

Calling all real feminists! Let’s make fun of Ivanka Trump! Come on, you know you want to, and given how much ground we’ve been losing lately, god knows we deserve a treat.

Our healthcare, reproductive rights and social support networks are vanishing before our very eyes and there she is, fauxminist-in-chief, daughter of the most powerful misogynist on the planet, dishing out her mindless “you go, girl!” advice to those mysterious, never-seen-before Women Who Work.

“Our grandmothers,” declares Ivanka, “Fought for the right to work”:

“Our mothers fought for the choice to be in an office or to stay at home. Our generation is the first to fully embrace and celebrate the fact that our lives are multidimensional. Thanks to the women who came before us and paved the way, we can create the lives we want to lead—which look different for each of us.”

You tell it like it is, Ivanka! Never before, in the entire history of the world, have women been actual human beings who do stuff! But just home or office stuff, mind! No other workplaces exist, nor has there ever been such a thing as economic necessity. Finally we’ve got the opportunity to make ourselves useful. Please tell us what to do next!

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Attacking Ivanka Trump’s feminism is like shooting fish in a barrel, except for the fact that the fish wouldn’t deserve it. Hence it’s hardly surprising that since the publication of Women Who Work, everyone’s been lining up to have a go. “This,” writes Jennifer Senior for the New York Times, “Is the sort of feminism that drives some women bananas, having less to do with structural change than individual fulfilment and accessorizing properly.” Well, quite. It’s white, middle-class, lean-in feminism on speed. “Pursue your passion! Make sure you, and not others, define success! Architect a life you love in order to fully realize your multidimensional self!” Most important of all, don’t ask how much the domestic drudgery of your children’s nannies might have helped in your quest for self-definition. Remember, your multidimensionality’s got nothing to do with them.

It’s all very cathartic, isn’t it? We all know – have known for decades – that feminist rhetoric has been appropriated and misused by the powerful. As Katherine Viner wrote in 2002, “feminism is used for everything these days, except the fight for true equality – to sell trainers, to justify body mutiliations, to make women make porn, to help men get off rape charges, to ensure women feel they have self-respect because they use a self-esteem-enhancing brand of shampoo”. Or as Nina Power pointed out in 2009’s One Dimensional Woman: “If feminism is something you define for yourself, then what’s to stop it being pure egotism, pure naked greed? Absolutely nothing.”

Today we have the likes of Jessa Crispin and Andi Zeisler raising their voices against the self-centred, navel-gazing “lifestyle feminism” of Trump et al. “In this particular era,” complains Crispin, “It’s very fashionable to be a radical without doing any of the work – call yourself a feminist, an anarchist, an anti-capitalist.” She’s absolutely right. For the likes of Ivanka Trump or Theresa May to be a feminist, the word itself must be emptied of meaning. It’s high time we all said no to that.

Yet there’s something about all this more-radical-than-thou, lean-out feminism that makes me hesitate. If you’re going to attack others for using feminism as a brand, fine. But then you should be willing to lay your own politics on the table. It’s not enough to offer up a different, hipper, more self-aware brand instead. Individualism is still individualism, regardless of whether your version of it is more fashionable. Where’s the actual power analysis underpinning all of this posturing? What is it that makes anti-Trump feminism more of a challenge to the status quo? Celebrating diverse gender identities may be less passé than architecting multidimensional selves; they’re both equally effective ways of sidestepping any discussion of the relationship between sex, gender, poverty and work.

The exploitation of women as a class – whether we are talking about reproductive, emotional, sexual, physical or intellectual labour – has always been justified on the basis that female humans identify with their lowly social position. Contemporary gender politics would argue that this is wrong because there’s no way of telling what social position a person identifies with, other than by asking them. This is true up to a point, but does not get to the heart of the problem, which is that no one identifies with being exploited.

A journalist, professor or activist might one week be declaring that women’s unpaid labour to be a feminist issue; the next she’ll be saying that womanhood can’t be defined by anything so restrictive as what is done to or expected of females humans. Perhaps there are some who don’t see the contradiction, but I suspect most do. They’re hoping it doesn’t matter, that somehow a labour class can be liberated without anyone having to do anything so vulgar as to give that class an actual name. Most “outspoken” feminists would rather say nothing than risk association with actual radical feminism. And the meek shall inherit the earth, providing that doesn’t make the non-meek feel excluded.

In 1999 Martha Nussbaum wrote a brilliant critique of the now-dominant gender theories of Judith Butler. “Butlerian feminism,” argues Nussbaum, “Is in many ways easier than the old feminism”:

It tells scores of talented young women that they need not work on changing the law, or feeding the hungry, or assailing power through theory harnessed to material politics. They can do politics in safety of their campuses, remaining on the symbolic level, making subversive gestures at power through speech and gesture. […] Hungry women are not fed by this, battered women are not sheltered by it, raped women do not find justice in it, gays and lesbians do not achieve legal protections through it.

There’s actually very little difference between the privilege-denying feminism of Trump and the feminism that tells you the body is irrelevant and that your gender can be defined without the slightest consideration of your social location in relation to others. Both versions make no attempt to accommodate the inner life of the woman who’s sweeping your floors and raising your kids, nor to recognise that for her, “architecting” one’s own “multidimensional” life – or expressing one’s true gender identity – cannot be separated from the gendered reality of work, mess and the body.

Women deserve a feminism that represents them all. Ivanka Trump’s fauxminism is anything but that. But the difference needs to be one of substance, not just style.

So-called lean-in feminism is but one manifestation of the toxic belief that one group of people lives to serve another and that the only problem with this is misidentifying the masters and the servants. If you want to do better than Ivanka Trump, you need to be brave and tackle this problem at the root.