© 2024 WXPR
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Many Working Women Won't See Themselves In 'Women Who Work'

"Let's show the world what it looks like to be a woman who works," says Ivanka Trump, soft-voiced and chic, looking into the camera. She looks good, this woman who works. It's 2014. She gives a little smile, and a shake of her gently waved blond hair, and the screen fades to the serifed logo of her brand.

Trump's new book shares a name and a mission with her company's marketing campaign: Women Who Work. Organized into sections with titles like "Dream Big" and "Make Your Mark," Women Who Work is a sea of blandities, an extension of that 2014 commercial seeded with ideas lifted ("curated," she calls it) from various well-known self-help authors. Reading it feels like eating scented cotton balls.

"My company was not just meeting the lifestyle needs of today's modern professional woman with versatile, well-designed products," Trump writes, undermining the care she has taken in interviews to avoid appearing as if she's using her position to promote her brand. "It was celebrating those needs, at a price point she could afford."

Ostensibly a business guide for women, Women Who Work is a long simper of a book, full of advice so anodyne ("I believe that we each get one life and it's up to us to live it to the fullest"), you could almost scramble the sentences and come out with something just as coherent. In spite of this formlessness, there are distinct, revealing moments here.

"Gather wisdom from others" is one of Trump's cornerstones, and that is truly the rock on which she has built her church — at one point she calls writing "wordsmithing pieces of content," a precious phrase that elides the distinctions between writing, editing, and borrowing.

"I've curated my best thinking, as well as that of so many others, in the pages of this book," she writes (wordsmiths?), and what she means is that she rehashes her previous writings and borrows heavily from lifestyle gurus and corporate feminist authors like Sheryl Sandberg, while simultaneously claiming Women Who Work offers something radically new, "a hopeful, more authentic alternative to the way work has worked previously." Though there is an extensive bibliography, she's often vague about exactly how much she has taken. But almost any idea, upon investigation, has someone else's work behind it.

So it is for obvious reasons that the criticism leveled at Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In — that it was written for rich white women only — applies to this book as well. Invisible hands — nannies, drivers, security, and other paid help — make Trump's lifestyle possible, but barely get a mention. In one of the rare references to her household staff, she writes, "Some of my best photos of the kids were taken by my nanny during the day (I'm sure in ten years I'll convince myself I took them!)."

"[P]assion," she writes elsewhere, "combined with perseverance, is a great equalizer, more important than education or experience in achieving your version of success." If only the poor were more passionate.

Trump's lack of awareness, plus a habit of skimming from her sources, often results in spectacularly misapplied quotations — like one from Toni Morrison's Beloved about the brutal psychological scars of slavery. "Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another," is positioned in cute faux-handwritten capitals (and tagged #itwisewords) before a chapter on "working smarter." In it, she asks: "Are you a slave to your time or the master of it? Despite your best intentions, it's easy to be reactive and get caught up in returning calls, attending meetings, answering e-mails ..."

In a section called "Staking Your Claim," she writes, "Simply put, staking your claim means declaring something your own. Early in our country's history, as new territories were acquired or opened — particularly during the gold rush — a citizen could literally put a stake in the ground and call the land theirs. The land itself, and everything on it, legally became that person's property." Over and over again, Trump's message is: Take whatever you can get, and then print your name on it.

Many of the inspiring quotations Trump stakes a claim to here seem to have been culled from apocryphal inspiration memes. For instance, on the subject of asking for a raise, she quotes another black women writing on racism, Maya Angelou: "Ask for what you want and be prepared to get it."

But the real, very different line is from Angelou's memoir The Heart of a Woman, and it is a piece of advice about living in a racist world. "Ask for what you want," Angelou's mother tells her, "and be prepared to pay for what you get."

At least she doesn't tag that one #itwisewords, too, — I.T., standing, of course, for Ivanka Trump.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.
Up North Updates
* indicates required