Beloved, Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel, tells the story of Sethe, a woman who was born into slavery and who escaped her plantation—only to be, a mere month after she found freedom, re-captured. Before she was returned, Sethe, rather than subject her 2-year-old daughter to the horrors that awaited them, paid the girl the only mercy she could: She killed her. Years later and, now, “free” once again, Sethe is haunted—by her daughter, by her history, by the history that is all of America’s to bear—and by the general fact that freedom is, in this country, a deeply relative proposition.
Ivanka Trump quotes Beloved in Women Who Work, her new book on Rewriting the Rules for Success. Its title is adapted from a tagline that was adopted in a marketing meeting and that has lived most of its life as a promotional hashtag for the Ivanka Trump brand of clothing, jewelry, and, most recently, feminism. The book makes liberal use of inspirational quotes, of words borrowed from the likes of Oprah and Chopra and Gandhi and Socrates and Cynthia Nixon and Coco Chanel; the sentence Trump borrows from Morrison comes as a preface to Women Who Work’s chapter on Working Smarter, Not Harder. “Bit by bit … she had claimed herself,” writes the one author, quoting the other. “Freeing yourself was one thing: claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”
The line is, in the book, written in the faux-handwritten, Post-It-noted font in which many of Trump’s other bits of borrowed wisdom are rendered; it is punctuated with the book’s other hashtag, #ITWISEWORDS. Later in the chapter on Working Smarter, Trump will revisit the Morrison quote to offer her own interpretation of the concept of “freedom.” “Are you a slave to your time or the master of it?” Trump asks. She anticipates the answer. “Despite your best intentions, it’s easy to be reactive and get caught up in returning calls, attending meetings, answering e-mails, and managing your team, only to realize that it’s 6:30 p.m.—and you haven’t done a single thing that’s of high value … .”
And, with that, Ivanka Trump compares being “a slave to your time” to being an actual slave. With one quote—a line chosen, according to the accompanying hashtag, for its disembodied wisdom—the scion turned businesswoman turned presidential advisor cheerfully ignores history, or, more specifically, she reclaims it for the purpose of selling sheath dresses, work-appropriate stilettos, and herself. Reviews of Women Who Work, at least the ones that have not been written by People magazine, have generally dismissed the book as being by turns “painfully oblivious” and “vapid” and “like eating scented cotton balls,” in part because it relies on chirpy platitudes to send its message of feminine empowerment, and in part because its vision of feminism is not very feminist at all, but also in part because the book, as The New York Times put it, serves up “a strawberry milkshake of inspirational quotes.”
Borrowing the words of the famous and the wise to lend a sheen to one’s own is a time-honored practice, of course, common not only in high school essays that introduce their insights with those gleaned from the great philosopher Merriam-Webster, but also in the self-help genre, and in academia, and in journalism. The technique, at its best, does what any quote, well-deployed, will do: to supplement one’s own wisdom and, indeed, to serve as a gesture of performed humility. I don’t know, but here is someone who does.
But there is very little humility in this book that is premised on the notion that women would be better off if women would be more like Ivanka Trump. And Trump is not simply, in Women Who Work, quoting other people. She is, more strictly, appropriating their words. (The “IT” in #ITWISEWORDS stands for, yes, Ivanka Trump.) Trump is taking those words out of their original contexts, and blithely, if not willfully, misunderstanding them.
Here, Melville House’s Ian Dreiblatt points out, is advice that Maya Angelou’s mother gave her before she moved to New York City—words Angelou recalled in her memoir, The Heart of a Woman:
Take care of yourself. Take care of your son, and remember New York City is just like Fresno. Just more of the same people in bigger buildings. Black folks can’t change because white folks won’t change. Ask for what you want and prepared to pay for what you get.
Here is how Trump reframes that advice in Women Who Work: “Ask for what you want and be prepared to get it.” (The asking in this case, NPR’s Annalisa Quinn notes, comes in the context of explaining how women might request a raise.)
And here is a line from Jane Goodall, the primatologist, that Trump quotes in Women Who Work: “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”
Here is how Goodall reacted to being included in Women Who Work, in a statement she provided to CNN: “I sincerely hope she will take the full import of my words to heart. She is in a position to do much good or terrible harm.”
Legislation that was passed by previous governments to protect wildlife such as the Endangered Species Act, create national monuments and other clean air and water legislation have all been jeopardized by this administration. I hope that Ms. Trump will stand with us to value and cherish our natural world and protect this planet for future generations.
Which is, in one way, reminiscent of the musicians who protest their music being used in the campaign rallies of politicians they disagree with: Do not use my art for your agenda. (Or, in Goodall’s case: I hope your agenda will come around to mine.) The problem is broader, though—not a matter of intellectual property colliding with the frenetic pageantry of the political campaign, but rather a matter of the way words themselves are by turns weaponized and weakened within this chapter of American cultural life. Trump is at her leisure to use others’ insights; the way she is using them, though, is what grates. The words’ histories, their original contexts, their authorial intents—none of that much matters in the breezy world of Women Who Work. It is in that sense a deeply postmodern book; all it’s missing is the irony.
Women Who Work, as it happens, arrives at a moment that is itself deeply anxious about context and history. It’s hard to read the lines above, and the many others like them—words borrowed from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Mindy Kaling, and so many others, many of them women of color—and not be reminded of the approach to words and wisdom that is generally taken by Trump’s boss, who is also her father, who is also the U.S. president, who is also the person most directly responsible for bringing terms like “fake news” and “alternative facts” into the American vernacular.
In a week that found President Trump suggesting that Andrew Jackson could have prevented the Civil War—in a year that found the president suggesting that Frederick Douglass is still alive—his daughter’s treatment of history is particularly striking. Here, in this book from Trump, the daughter-advisor, is the trend re-exerting itself: Here are words that have been stubbornly disentangled from their original purposes. Even the high school essay that clears its throat with a “Merriam-Webster defines [word] as” shows concern about that word’s history, usage, and culturally agreed-upon meaning. Trump, though, treats the words of others as if they were offerings at a brunch buffet. She merrily appends them to her own bits of wisdom—“I believe that we each get one life and it’s up to us to live it to the fullest”—and then moves on to the next chapter.
Context, though, is not an academic nicety. It is what makes the difference between words that have meaning and words that have none. It is what makes the difference between catchphrases about #WomenWhoWork and a true grappling with the experience that women live every day. It is the difference between “feminism” and feminism. Trump disregards context when she writes that “passion, combined with perseverance, is a great equalizer, more important than education or experience in achieving your version of success.” She disregards context when she talks about the diversity of her “demographic” not in terms of race or income, but in terms of being married or single, of having kids or not. Trump disregards context when she writes a book that ignores the structural forces that weigh on women’s lives, but that advises them simply to DREAM (be Determined, Respectful, Engaged, Ambitious, and Motivated) and to DO (be Dedicated and Optimistic).
And she disregards context, too, when she quotes Toni Morrison in order to make the point that women should try to avoid becoming “slaves to time.” Beloved, after all, is not merely a work of fiction. Morrison based her novel on the experiences of a woman who, just before the Civil War, escaped slavery in Kentucky and fled to Ohio. Her name was Margaret Garner. She is not quoted in Women Who Work.
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