Don't Say Ivanka Is Bad for Women if You're Gonna Be All Sexist About It

Attacks on the first daughter's appearance don't do the resistance any favors.

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Jul 12 2017, 11:00pm

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This originally appeared on VICE US.

I could spend hours rattling off reasons Ivanka Trump is no friend to women. For starters, she's working to further the agenda of her father, a renowned sexist who's bragged about grabbing women "by the pussy" and described abortion as "rip[ping] the baby out of the womb." Her own signature policy proposal is a family leave plan that was derided as being ineffectual and likely to be ignored by the rest of the Republican Party.

But Ivanka Trump's feminism, or lack thereof, has nothing to do with the way she dresses or looks—a point that apparently still needs to be made.

In a Sunday interview with Thomas Roberts on MSNBC Live, MSNBC contributor and Nation correspondent Joan Walsh attacked Trump's choice of attire for the G20 summit, where the first daughter made headlines for sitting in for her father during a meeting. Much of what Walsh said about Trump not being a feminist was standard stuff, but then she starting talking about the "big bows on her sleeves."

"I don't mean to sound sexist," Walsh prefaced, expressing a fleeting glimpse of self-awareness. "It can be dangerous to comment on what women wear, but the fact that she sat in for her father in a dress that was so incredibly ornamental was such a contradiction in terms."

Wait, what?

Ivanka Trump at the G20 summit. Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

When Roberts, anticipating the backlash Walsh's comments would inevitably receive, asked the pundit, "Do you think you're opening yourself up about the bows? Are you ready?" she doubled down.

"Are you looking at Twitter yet?" Walsh asked. "It's a pink dress with big bows on the elbows... That's not a dress that's made for work. That's not a dress that's made to go out in the world and make a difference. That is a dress that is designed to show off your girlie-ness, and, you know, God bless her, show it off, but don't then tell us that you're crusading for an equal place for women at the table because you're not."

When the host asked if Walsh believed you can't be girlie and a feminist at the same time, she explained, "You can... We all have our girlie days, but I think showing up, taking your father's seat in a pink dress with big bows on the sleeves is really an interesting message."

Obviously, it's sexist to use a woman's appearance or outfit choice to disparage her. But Walsh took it to the next level when she singled out Trump's outfit's overt femininity as a problem. The suggestion that "girlie-ness" is inherently disempowering furthers the bullshit notion that in order for a woman to succeed professionally, she can't be too feminine.

Walsh's comment is antiquated, likely born of out of a second-wave feminist ideology of the 1960s and 70s where a rejection of classic femininity and objectification—i.e. the infamous bra burnings, the anti-pornography movement, protesting of the Miss America pageant—was central to the movement.

But in 2017, what it means to be a feminist has shifted radically, and wearing push-up bras or participating in the Miss America pageant or wearing a pink dress during an important meeting does not preclude you from championing women's rights. (Ivanka's unwavering support of her father, on the other hand, does.)


How used clothing became illegal in Bolivia:


The question of what counts as an "appropriate" outfit for a woman is maddening but impossible to escape. Earlier this month, female reporters spoke out about being banned from the Speaker of the House's lobby for violating an antiquated dress code that prohibits sleeveless dresses. (Though as the conservative media has eagerly pointed out, in the Speaker's lobby, male reporters are required to wear a suit and tie.) In June, while on a phone call with Ireland's new leader, Donald Trump took a moment to compliment an Irish reporter Caitríona Perry's "nice smile." Recently an EU court ruled that employers can ban headscarves in the workplace, a policy not only born out of Islamophobia, but sexism as well.

All of these incidents reinforce the idea that when you're a woman, your appearance matters above all else—and further, how you dress and look are worthwhile topics for discussion. Appearances can define the way people perceive your work, an issue men rarely have to deal with. Hillary Clinton's pantsuits became part of her visual brand, but they may also have been a way to avoid criticisms of her outfits.

One of the things the third-wave feminist movement (which began in the 1990s) tried to achieve was pushing against the idea that the way women look reflects their moral character, and deconstructing the idea that certain personality traits or mannerisms were inherently masculine or feminine. The next iteration of the movement put forth the idea that a woman could be traditionally feminine or a raunchy slut and still be part of the movement.

What makes Walsh's comment all the more problematic is the fact that what women wear can be an excuse to dismiss them as unserious, or, more disturbingly, to justify sexual assault ("Was she asking for it?") as well as other gender-based violence and discrimination.

Walsh knows plenty about sexism. She's not shy about appropriately labeling critics as sexist who deride her as a "silly girl" or a witch—and that makes her comments about Trump seem especially hypocritical and disappointing. A better critique of the first daughter's attire, the New Republic's Sarah Jones points out, would be noting that "her clothing line uses sweatshop labor... China recently arrested three activists for trying to investigate conditions at the factories that make her company's clothes."

There's no shortage of valid ways to criticize Ivanka Trump. Having no previous political experience, she is woefully unequipped for the job she earned through nepotism. Who cares what color her dress is, or if it has bows?

Follow Eve Peyser on Twitter.

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