‘Actions Speak Louder Than Words.’ Ivanka Trump Is Walking a Fine Line on Women’s Issues

April 17, 2017, 12:00 PM UTC

Shortly after President Donald Trump took office, his daughter Ivanka Trump met with the president of Planned Parenthood.

It was an awkward situation for both. On the campaign trail, the elder Trump had suggested that women should be punished for receiving abortions (a statement he then retracted) and called for defunding Planned Parenthood if it continued providing abortions. For her part, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards had been a staunch supporter of Hillary Clinton during the election, and once referred to one of Ivanka Trump’s pet projects, a proposal on maternity leave, as “half-baked.”

But the two made a good-faith effort to connect, with a Planned Parenthood spokesperson describing the meeting as “cordial and informative.”

A little over two months later, Vice President Mike Pence cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate on a bill that allows states to withhold federal funding from Planned Parenthood and other organizations that provide abortion. On April 13, President Trump signed the bill into law. The First Daughter was spotted skiing in Canada that day, during the Jewish holiday of Passover.

On social media, the news was greeted by many Planned Parenthood supporters with a “Thanks, Ivanka,” an increasingly common way for liberals to express their displeasure with the First Daughter. “The Planned Parenthood defunding is exactly the reason we don’t trust Ivanka’s ‘influence’ and never will,” liberal pundit Zerlina Maxwell said on Twitter.

The Planned Parenthood outreach was emblematic of the tricky position that Ivanka Trump is in as First Daughter. As Trump’s most visible emissary on women’s issues, it remains to be seen if she can bridge the considerable partisan divide between the White House and liberals on abortion, equal pay, paid parental leave and other matters. So far it’s looking less than likely, as liberal groups and their allies in government feel increasingly marginalized and frustrated with the Trump Administration. And it’s the First Daughter who frequently bears the brunt of the backlash against actions her father has taken.

When President Trump defended Fox News host Bill O’Reilly in the face of sexual harassment charges, California Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters criticized the First Daughter.

“Where is Ivanka?” Waters asked in an interview. “I think she either advised him wrong or is absent.”

As Richards, who has called Ivanka’s silence “deafening,” put it pointedly at the Women in the World Summit earlier this month: “Anyone who works in this White House is responsible for addressing why women are in the crosshairs of basically every single policy that we’ve seen out of this administration.”

The White House declined to comment on the record for this article. In a recent interview on CBS This Morning, Ivanka Trump attempted to deflect the criticism, arguing that she works behind the scenes. “Where I disagree with my father, he knows it,” she said.

The role of First Daughter has always been a challenging one — just ask Chelsea Clinton, the Bush twins or the Obama daughters how they felt about the public scrutiny. But Ivanka Trump is older than most first children, with her own public image to maintain and a brand that is inescapably linked to her father’s.

Before Donald Trump got into politics, Ivanka Trump served as an executive in the family business and had cameos on The Apprentice while running her own fashion line. When he ran for President, she vouched for his advocacy of women in the workforce and stood onstage with him while he announced proposals for affordable childcare. She gave a well-received primetime speech on women’s issues at the Republican National Convention, where she described herself as neither “categorically Republican or Democrat.” And after serving as an informal adviser, she joined the White House staff in late March.

“We’ve never seen a presidential daughter involved in policy like this before,” Kate Anderson Brower, the author of First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies, said in an email. “Some people might find it refreshing to see an intelligent woman in her mid-thirties being given a seat at the table, regardless of why or how.”

Anderson Brower also noted the “fine line” Ivanka Trump has to walk “while trying to draw her father’s attention to pursue issues like childcare and global warming and while still keeping a seat at the table.”

Since the election, Ivanka Trump has been involved in some high-profile events while carefully staking out her own moderate public positions. She’s met with former Vice President Al Gore to discuss climate change, attended a summit on women entrepreneurs with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chancellor Angela Merkel, and attended a White House panel on increasing the number of women in STEM fields. Later this month, she will attend the Women’s 20 summit in Germany.

The White House has touted these meetings to showcase her advocacy, and she officially joined the White House staff as a government employee late last month.

“So far we haven’t seen actual policies that show that she’s being effective pushing her agenda yet,” said Anderson Brower. “Look at who is head of the EPA,” she added, referring to Scott Pruitt, a longtime EPA antagonist who has questioned the overwhelming scientific consensus of man-made climate change and now runs the agency he once sued frequently.

On some of her father’s more controversial comments — on issues like his court-hobbled travel ban or building a wall on the border with Mexico — Ivanka Trump has refrained from public comment. That silence has drawn fierce criticism from Trump opponents. A viral Saturday Night Live sketch argued the silence makes her “complicit,” while the actress who portrayed her in the sketch, Scarlett Johansson, argued that she needs to speak up more.

“If you take a job as a public advocate, then you must advocate publicly,” Johansson said at the Women in the World Summit.

Her public silence has included times when President Trump has taken actions contrary to his daughter’s stated goals. While Ivanka Trump has touted equal pay for women, posting a graph depicting the gender wage gap on her Instagram feed and noting her excitement about fighting for this goal on Equal Pay Day, her father signed an executive order rescinding an Obama Administration requirement that federal contractors be more transparent about salaries.

“Obviously we think it’s a positive thing that she has talked about the importance of equal pay and paid family leave; certainly that is a good first step,” said Emily Martin, a lawyer who handles workplace issues for the National Women’s Law Center. “What we haven’t heard in regards to equal pay is any sort of policy proposal or any sort of discussion what she feels, [or] what President Trump feels.”

Views of Ivanka Trump are also divided along partisan lines in Congress. In February, she held a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House with a small group of female lawmakers to discuss paid leave and her childcare tax proposal. Nebraska Republican Sen. Deb Fischer, who was among the attendees at that meeting and introduced the Workplace Advancement Act, which would prevent punishment for employees wanting to know or share information about salaries, said she is “thrilled” to have Ivanka Trump working on this issue.

“Working with Ivanka is really a benefit for us,” Fischer said. “It’s exciting because she brings a lot of attention to this issue. And to have the White House step up and use its platform will bring in a lot of outside groups, too.”

But Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, who co-sponsored the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would strengthen the provisions of the 1963 Equal Pay Act, was less enthusiastic. Murray was not invited to the meeting in the Roosevelt Room, an official in her office confirmed, and there has been no contact between Murray and Trump on the issue of equal pay. The same goes for Connecticut Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who re-introduced the Paycheck Fairness Act in Congress this year, as she has done for two decades.

“If the Trump Administration is serious about supporting women and equal pay, they have a lot of work to do to show women across the country they will stand up and fight for meaningful equal pay legislation,” Murray said in a statement to Fortune. “For the millions of women being paid less than their male coworkers, actions speak louder than words.”

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