Whose life could possibly resemble Ivanka Trump’s?
A millionaire heiress, former model, businesswoman, and aspiring first daughter, she wakes up most mornings in the penthouse of a building named for her family and slips on a dress with her name on the tag. She’s impossibly put-together — one of those rare celebrities who doesn’t even get caught in a ball cap and featured in the "just like us" section of Us Weekly.
Needless to say, I’ve never thought Ivanka Trump was like me at all. But Danae Branson has. The small-town Minnesota business owner and the celebrity executive are both moms of three, entrepreneurs, and hardworking women with positive attitudes and lots of ambition.
"I can’t say exactly when I noticed her, but being a woman around my age in a male-dominated field, she was an inspiration," said Branson, who spent the first several years of her career trying to prove herself to her male colleagues in the early-2000s finance industry. "I felt drawn to follow her."
The Iowa State University grad now runs a virtual assistants business out of her home, and — in addition to her subscription to Entrepreneur magazine and YouTube videos from her favorite motivational speaker Marie Forleo — follows career advice on IvankaTrump.com. Trump’s site is a fusion of a lifestyle blog and Lean In-style inspiration for millennial women.
Branson keeps up with the site’s work section each week, as well as Trump’s Women Who Work initiative, a collective of 50 entrepreneurial women — CEOs of companies like makeup subscription service Birchbox, STEM-friendly toy maker GoldieBlox, and financial planning firm LearnVest — who lend their expertise to the site. (This summer, Trump announced she’s also writing a Women Who Work book.)
A recent post on delegating tasks and giving constructive criticism resonated perfectly with Branson’s leadership philosophy for the 60 women working for her company, Elite Scheduling Services. "I love this!" she wrote in the article’s comments section. "I try to teach my clients to do these things to get the most success out of their relationship with their virtual assistant."
More on women and work
Branson is one of hundreds of thousands of IvankaTrump.com readers who see Trump as a role model. Ivanka Trump has 2.1 million followers on Twitter, 1.5 million on Facebook, and 1.1 million on Instagram. Across platforms, that’s more than Sheryl Sandberg, Gloria Steinem, and #Girlboss author Sophia Amoruso combined. More remarkable than the numbers: Her fans include Donald Trump opponents and die-hard supporters, proud feminists and women like Branson who have never used that label.
I chatted with 20 of these loyal readers and half a dozen of Trump’s Women Who Work partners, in addition to perusing every post on her site from the past four months. IvankaTrump.com hits the major millennial touchstones: a page of inspirational quotes ready to be pinned and Instagrammed; pretty images paired with each daily post; and taglines that reference adulting, life hacks, and mompreneurs.
Unlike more focused feminist campaigns or snarkier women’s blogs, IvankaTrump.com offers a relentlessly positive feminism built around Trump’s gentle charisma. It’s like she wants to defy the bumper stickers and be the exceptional "well-behaved woman" who does make history.
Her advice implies that all of us have the potential for happier, healthier, better organized, and more fulfilling lives at work and at home. The obvious obstacles women face in the workplace — racism, privilege, and other disparities — do not fit with Trump’s inspirational tone. For women who want to change themselves and push themselves to do more, her message is empowering. For women who want to see the world around them change, it’s disappointing.
"We have content to help you be your best self"
When it comes to gender issues, Ivanka Trump is in a unique spot. At July’s Republican National Convention, Trump brought up how the wage gap is greatest for married mothers, who make 77 cents to a man’s dollar. She promised to fight alongside her dad for equal pay for equal work and affordable child care. "I know how hard it is to work while raising a family. And I also know that I’m far more fortunate than most. American families need relief," she told the crowd.
Her stated positions are liberal enough to fit within the working women movement, but family-centered enough to appeal to women who might be wary of a "feminist" campaign. Her business background and faith (she’s a convert to Orthodox Judaism) also help her conservative cred.
Her site reflects that delicate balance. Ivanka Trump’s site pulses with her famous father’s influence, but not in the way you might expect. Donald Trump’s outlook was shaped by Norman Vincent Peale, his family’s pastor and the author of The Power of Positive Thinking, a famous 1950s self-help book that inspired a generation to "eliminate self-doubt" and "always picture success."
His daughter carries on this positive legacy in her own way. On her site, you won’t find hot takes or angry critiques, no rants against patriarchy or commiserations over working motherhood. Everything is how-to and can-do. Each post is angled to be constructive, even if the topic seems miserable. According to IvankaTrump.com, you can make the most of those boring jobs and unpaid internships! Daunted at having to return to work after having a baby? There’s a list of tips for that too, including: Have the sitter text you pics during the day or start planning for your next vacation.
"Just this morning, I saw something on Ivanka's site called ‘Five Ways to Deal with Passive-Aggressive People,’" Jessie Hatchette, a working mom who subscribes to Trump’s email newsletters and YouTube channel, told me. "I come across many people with this communication style, so this gave me practical guidance that I could take right from the screen to the street."
Hatchette, who’s preparing to launch a government contracting company in the DC area, said Trump’s tips on communication and relationships have been particularly relevant since they apply in and out of the office. She’s a mother of three, getting ready to balance more schedules and demands once her kids go back to school
"IvankaTrump.com is designed to inspire and empower women to achieve on their own individual definition of success," stated Abigail Klem, chief brand officer (and, according to her bio, bedtime storyteller, ever-improving cook, yogi, mother, sister, and aunt). "Regardless of where you're at in your career, we have content to help you be your best self."
Broad applicability is key; the advice on IvankaTrump.com is less about what you do and more about the attitude with which you do it.
"I find her ideas and way of thinking very fresh and evolved, and I love how she marries conservatism with progressiveness in her life," said Hatchette, who defends equal rights for women in society and shared responsibilities in the home, where her husband steps in to cook when she’s busy. "She's defining what (today’s) woman looks like, and that definition looks like a pillar of strength and softness."
Some of Trump’s Women Who Work affiliates, many of them leading companies geared toward women and women’s empowerment, have continued to partner with her while supporting Hillary Clinton. Hitha Palepu, COO of the philanthropy startup Bridge2Act and a travel blogger, proudly tweets #ImWithHer, while posting her packing tips to IvankaTrump.com.
"The beauty of the #WomenWhoWork initiative is how it celebrates every role of a woman — including that of an engaged citizen," said Palepu, who met Ivanka Trump at a holiday party last year. "While we support different presidential candidates, I respect Ivanka and how she chooses to participate in this presidential election. I continue to have a great working relationship with her and her team."
"She really does celebrate and highlight the real day-to-day questions that a working mom would need"
Certain words come up again and again when I ask women to describe Trump: classy, poised, confident, measured, genuine. Her career trajectory — graduating from Wharton Business School and getting straight into the corporate world — meant that she could avoid the disdain hurled at fellow "rich girl" daughters like Paris Hilton, Ally Hilfiger, and Kim Kardashian. The more Trump speaks and writes, the more she convinces the world that she is more than the product of her father’s name and money.
Reader Miranda Puritz says she has no problem believing a trust fund kid can work as hard as the rest of us. From the moment she saw Ivanka Trump as a Trump vice president and an adviser on The Apprentice several years ago, she recognized her business savvy. Puritz started following IvankaTrump.com on Facebook last year.
"She's well-versed in executive procedures and management," said Puritz, an insurance agent in California, who uses the time management resources on IvankaTrump.com to help her schedule as a parent. "I think women can learn a lot from Ivanka's determination. … She's fierce and gets the job done."
Jessica Lawrence checks Trump’s Facebook and Instagram feeds as she prepares to go back to work as a mortgage banker after taking two years off to raise her three young kids — two boys and a girl, just like Trump’s. "I admire Ivanka for her style, professionalism, and the real-life moments that she shares," the California native said. Her latest favorite article shared tips for being gracious and clear with workplace communication.
The advice, from executive coach Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin, sounds like Trump herself: "If you can grow your workplace communication to include, as a part of your personal brand, a reputation for being cool under pressure, generous with praise, and respectful to others, your workplace communication will become one of your greatest assets as you rise to the top of the corporate ladder."
Whether on Celebrity Apprentice, TV news, or her own YouTube channel, Trump is consistently articulate. I could listen to her talk about anything, even the election (which we’ve all heard enough about already). Trump pauses before responding to questions, smiles throughout, and gives measured responses. I hadn’t noticed her deeper tone and lack of up-speak until I read the tip in another article ("9 ways to make yourself irresistible"). According to the psychiatrist who wrote it: Lowering your voice at the end of a sentence "inspires a gravitational pull."
Behind the scenes, her friendly persona holds up. "She’s one of the sweetest people, and very attainable," said Katya Libin of the site Heymama, a community for fellow entrepreneurial moms. "I’ve sent her email, and she’s responded herself. No crazy assistant loopholes. For someone like her, that’s something really refreshing."
The youngest of the Woman Who Work partners, Rachael Bozsik, tells a similar story. While she was in business school, her fan letter to Ivanka Trump resulted in Trump responding to compliment Bozsik’s job-coaching site The Brand Girls and inviting the 23-year-old to collaborate.
Libin and her co-founder Amri Kibbler teamed up with Trump because both run sites designed around working women and "this new American dream of having it all, even for a few minutes of the day."
"One of the things that makes her content special is that she really does celebrate and highlight the real day-to-day questions that a working mom would need," from career guidance to recipes to fashion inspiration, said the Brooklyn mom, who’s part of Women Who Work.
IvankaTrump.com: "women’s empowerment with no teeth behind it"
Open about her mom fails and proud of her baby bumps, Trump positions herself as a modern mother striving for work-life balance, just like everyone else. "The balance question comes up all the time … but it’s also a question I hate," she said in a video on her YouTube channel, part of a series where she answers questions from social media.
Trump explained it this way: "How I think about my life, and this is in terms of my professional life and my personal life, is through the filter of my priorities. I try to ask myself the question as much as I can, ‘Am I living a life consistent with what I value?’ I think that that’s a more useful litmus test. Have we architected a life based on our priorities?"
But her reframing skips over some bigger issues. To state the obvious: She has more freedom to live out her values than the many moms whose work-life balance depends on finances, health, or opportunity. I don’t expect her to get into structural inequality in a one-minute clip, but still I worry about an icon for working moms running a space where privilege, racism, educational disparities, and other hard topics don’t get mentioned at all. I’m not ready to "change the dialogue" about women and work to something so feel-good and optimistic when there are still so many hurdles we still need to confront.
Earlier this month, the news tried to force Trump into the conversation over sexual harassment — another topic that does not appear on her site. As accusations mounted against former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, a skeptical Donald Trump said he hoped if Ivanka were in that situation, she’d just quit. Her brother said she was a "strong, powerful woman" who "wouldn’t allow herself" to be harassed. She then asserted in an interview that harassment is unacceptable — though her site still does not offer any advice on how women can combat it, let alone any calls for tougher policies against harassment.
I know that a more proactive approach to addressing controversial topics would turn off certain readers, either because they disagree with the approach or simply want a more supportive haven for life advice. According to a recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 30 percent of American women say they are not feminists, and 35 percent do not believe that today’s feminist movement is focused on changes women want. To keep reaching those who are ambivalent about feminism, Trump has to keep positive.
According to Jennifer Owens, editorial director of Working Mother Media, this approach is effective: "The more people talking about it, the better it is for all of us," said Owens,
Working Mother listed Trump among the 50 most powerful moms of 2016. For its 37-year history, the publication has rallied behind issues for white-collar working moms like flexible schedules, paid leave, equal pay, and affordable child care.
Still, some activists assert that celebrity and brand feminism is too happy-go-lucky for the cause. "Feminism is not fun," wrote Bitch magazine’s Andi Zeisler, author of the new book We Were Feminists Once. "It’s not supposed to be fun. It’s complex and hard and it pisses people off … The root issues that feminism confronts — wage inequality, gendered divisions of labor, institutional racism and sexism, structural violence and, of course, bodily autonomy — are deeply unsexy."
And while Trump’s positive message draws some women in, it turns others off. Becoming a woman "who works" is nothing new for women of color who historically have lacked the option to stay home, points out Anthonia Akitunde, founder of a site for working moms of color called Mater Mea.
IvankaTrump.com, she said, "is pushing the ‘lifting yourself by the bootstraps’ narrative that focuses solely on hard work without giving credence to the things that make it difficult for people of color specifically."
Atikunde’s site shares some similarities with Trump’s (advice for negotiating at work, style tips, and inspirational profiles of successful women), but it also talks about microaggressions, mental health, imposter syndrome, and other tough topics.
IvankaTrump.com "is there to present this idea of women’s empowerment that’s so popular right now, but doesn’t have any teeth behind it" and instead resembles a "WikiHow for women," said Akitunde.
We’re not going to fight sexism with inspirational sayings and how-to lists alone
I believe Ivanka Trump has worked hard and strategically for her success. The kind of advice shared on her site has helped her, and she hopes it will help other women as well. But I also recognize that Trump has gotten far on a personality and business style that fit in the narrow path already afforded to women in the workplace. With her assured-but-approachable tone, she sidesteps the common pitfalls for ambitious women — who are too often deemed inept, bossy, or bitchy for behavior otherwise accepted in men.
Trump either has some supernatural likeability that has perfectly positioned her to navigate workplace bias, or she intentionally avoids it, with a sharp outfit and smile. She works a system that already seems tilted in her favor.
Her site’s advice implies that, in Akitunde’s words, "Put your head down and you’ll be able to be an Ivanka or a Tory Burch or whoever else." I can see how that’s an encouragement for many women, but I already know I’m no Ivanka. I don’t want a backdoor, covert feminism that turns me into an acceptable kind of powerful woman through polite conversation and good posture.
I’m going to talk fast, speak my mind, and complain sometimes. I don’t want to have to cloak my opinions in nonthreatening language to seem nicer. I’m not going to straighten my curly hair to look more professional. I plan to keep being me. I can only hope the expectations for working women shift as more of us assert ourselves and model new ways to lead and achieve. (I know that probably means while Ivanka Trump is kicking butt in a board room, I’ll be left firing off sassy emails from my couch.)
I’ve spent too much time with the unapologetic feminism of sites like The Toast, Bustle, and Jezebel to sign off on an approach so sweet that it avoids real talk and real issues — even if I did glean some good advice about organizing my to-do lists and giving up on my pursuit of inbox zero. We’re not going to fight sexism with inspirational sayings and how-to lists alone.
Still — I see a place for both going forward. As Lena Dunham says in one of the only mentions of feminist on Trump’s site: "A huge part of being a feminist is giving other woman the freedom to make choices you might not necessarily make yourself."
Kate Shellnutt is a journalist covering faith, women, and pop culture. She works as an editor at Christianity Today magazine. Find her on Twitter @kateshellnutt.