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Ivana, Ivanka, Melania: What They Tell Us About Women, Power, and the White House

Whether you love or hate them, Trump’s women give us lots of insight into our president, says author Nina Burleigh. She chats with NextTribe's Jeannie Ralston about what researching her newest book taught her.

For as long as people have been obsessed (in a good way or not) with Donald Trump, they have been fascinated by the women in his life. He and his first wife, Ivana, took Manhattan, becoming emblematic of the Overstuffed Eighties. Marla Maples is remembered for breaking up that marriage and prompting the most outrageous front-page headline in journalism history: “Best Sex I’ve Ever Had” screamed the New York Post in its coverage of the affair. Melania is the cat-eyed cipher, and Ivanka is the golden-haired Daughter Who Could.

There are other key Trump women, namely his mother and grandmother—both immigrants who exerted enormous influence over Trump. Nina Burleigh, the national political correspondent for Newsweek and a frequent NextTribe contributor, has just published a generation-spanning book on the females in Trumplandia. Golden Handcuffs: The Secret History of Trump’s Women is the follow-up to her bestseller The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox.

I caught up with Nina recently in between TV interviews, podcasts, and all the other demands of publishing a newsy, must-read book.

I’ve heard you talk about how the symbolism of American womanhood shifted drastically on election night 2016. Can you describe the two images of American womanhood that were at odds that night?

One image wore sensible shoes and worked her way up the career ladder, fending off sexism and sexual harassment along the way. The other wore four-inch heels, essentially  self-hobbled in order to maintain the illusion of weak womanhood that appeals to conservatives and, also, is engaged in a transactional relationship with a deeply sexist man in order to rise in life.

What do you think are the ramifications of the Trumpian symbol of American womanhood? On older women like us? On what we project to the world?

The Trumpian ranking of hotness dismisses women over a certain age, so we are ugly, or more likely invisible. The Trumpian symbol of American womanhood prizes a commodified, branded, and often porn-ified image of younger women as the feminine ideal. Bad for women of all ages.

In the book, you talk about rich women, like Trump’s wives, in transactional relationships. But of course, this doesn’t only go on among the ridiculously wealthy. I guess we just thought we were moving past this, right?

Yes, I don’t mean to imply that many other women don’t marry for money, or ally themselves with an odious man in order to get ahead. In my circle of friends, this is unusual, but clearly it is not an extinct practice. Far from it. And Trump policies that make it harder for women to make it economically, or to control their own reproductive capacity, ensures that this path to power will remain appealing to many women.

Do you think more women than we might have suspected are actually pretty OK with the kind of Trump vision of women and marriage? I mean, at some point we have to account for the fact that a majority of white women voted for him.

I do think that many women are OK with this mode. I think partly it’s because they have been, like a lot of Americans, accustomed by a lot of TV and pop culture to believe that TV-glossy and young is how all women are supposed to look and anything less is bad, which is where you get the basis for self-loathing women all over. But also, I think a lot of white women, like white men, were not sufficiently moved by Hillary as a candidate, for a lot of reasons, some sexist and unfair and some fair.

You say in the book that you got incredible flak (hate tweets and emails) for writing about the stiletto heels that the Trump women wear. Are heels a problem? Are they somehow a symbol of this divide we’re talking about between visions of American womanhood?

I remain baffled. My guess is that as I mentioned above, these shoes are self-hobbling, which makes the women who wear them more amenable to conservatives and to men who fear feminine power. But I could be reading more into it. They do make the leg look good! And so to criticize them is to maybe get up into people’s sexuality, I guess. The stiletto equals sex, right?

What did you find to admire about the Trump women?

I think Ivanka has done some amazing work on herself, burying the trauma of her messed up childhood and maintaining focus. They are beautiful, and so fun to look at, from a girly, sitting-in-the-mani-pedi-chair standpoint. They wear pretty clothes. I like Ivana’s spirit and spunk. She’s funny. I’m also totally amazed that Melania can walk down jet stairs in those shoes without looking down. Respect!

Do you think there will be a lasting impact of having these Trump women as representatives of American womanhood? Or is this a blip in our progress?

A blip. Horse is out of the barn on feminism. Furthermore, as I say in the book, without Trump we wouldn’t have the #MeToo movement. He gets credit for coalescing a broad coalition, pun intended.

Further Reading

Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America

Raising Trump

Fear: Trump in the White House

By Jeannie Ralston


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