My Dad Wanted A Melania Wife And An Ivanka Daughter
One of the many absurdities of the Trump campaign is Ivanka Trump’s proud support of her misogynist father. She defends and advises him even as he fires a near-constant stream of sexist insults at Hillary Clinton, not to mention Megyn Kelly and a laundry list of other women. Maintaining that cognitive dissonance can’t be easy, but it’s also not unique: Many American men want to “marry Melanias and raise Ivankas.” Two-thirds of them want an independent daughter, but only one-third want an independent wife, according to a survey from 2015.
Ivanka seems to be able to live in denial, but what about the rest of those would-be independent daughters in families with less-than-independent moms? I grew up in this very bind; run-of-the-mill American sexism warped my place in the family. For my parents, it wasn’t that complicated: They were doing their best, playing out the gender roles they’d grown up with, but hoping their daughter would achieve professional success. But treating your wife like a servant and your daughter like a future CEO sends your daughter a damaging message about her place in the world. My father had high expectations for me, but he also believed that women should stay in the kitchen. That unresolvable conflict had a lasting impact on both my relationships and my career.
My dad expected my mother to be a Melania, taking care of the kids while he “supplied the funds” like Donald. She provided my dad with a personalized hotel: clean sheets, food just as he liked it, obedient children. She put effort into her appearance and still talks about her diet several times a day — pretty ordinary for a white lady in America. In fact, none of this is extraordinary — by contrast, it was how a lot of girls grew up in my suburban Texas neighborhood. My mother had been a teacher, but she quit when I was a baby, relieved to leave the stress of moneymaking to her husband. Sure, I caught a bit of ’90s girl power from TV, but in real life, none of us questioned the old-fashioned dynamics at home. And honestly, I was always glad to let my mother clean up for me. I’d clear my plate and then scramble upstairs to finish “my job,” the homework that was far less monotonous or gross than the work my mom was doing.
At the same time, my dad was trying, in a vague sort of way, to make me an Ivanka. He warned my mother not to drive downtown, where dangerous men (of color, though he didn’t have to say that part out loud) might attack her, but he pushed me to be independent and assertive. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” he’d repeat to me, after bullying an airline counter employee into switching our flight. I’d been a shy, anxious child, too afraid to ask for my own ketchup at McDonald’s or speak much in preschool, but I took his words to heart. In eighth grade, I caught the attention of the high school soccer coach, not because I was skilled (I was not) but because I was aggressive: Eyebrows pressed together, I’d charge for the ball, elbowing defenders out of my way. “You have to sell yourself,” my dad advised when I applied for jobs in college. By senior year, I was canvassing for a ballot initiative, knocking on strangers’ doors all afternoon. The shyness was gone.
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But my father had also taught me to stand up for myself in a less intentional way: against him. When I was a teenager, developing a baby political consciousness, we argued about the news in Sunday morning shouting matches that went further than either of us expected. He’d push back on my arguments until I cried tears of frustration. I’d stomp upstairs, ashamed of my emotion. And he’d be back for more the next week, seemingly unaware of how painful the conversations were for me, or how inappropriate it was for a grown man to try to win intellectual battles with a 14-year-old girl. I could tell he didn’t take me seriously, and I thought it was because I was young. It didn’t occur to me that he might think less of all women, and that I fell into that category.
And my father certainly didn’t take my mother seriously, either. In my twenties, I went back home for a family party. My mother was running late, and my dad had been waiting in the car for 15 minutes. He fumed while the motor ran and I made myself invisible in the backseat. She finally slid into the passenger seat, out of breath. As soon as the door shut, my dad gunned the engine and sped out of the driveway. “You don’t even do anything all day,” he said to my mother, as if a job outside our house would justify lateness. The hours she spent primping to be the pretty wife he expected — or taking care of their children — certainly didn’t.
My father wasn’t conscious of these biases; mostly, he was just proud of me. He thought I should go to law school because I liked to argue so much, and he bragged about my academic success to everyone he met. “You’re smarter than me,” he said once, when I consulted him about office politics. “You won’t have to work as hard as I’ve had to.” His view of the world — and of me — required some denial: At home, I was a girl like my mom, but in the work world, I was a star. Unlike my mother, whom he insulted for not working, even as he wanted her at home to keep him fed, I’d just float my way to the top of any professional ladder.
He was wrong, partially because he didn’t comprehend the challenges women face at work. He was shocked when I told him that two of my friends had left high-paying jobs because of sexual harassment. Even in my ostensibly female-friendly nonprofit sector, male bosses called colleagues “sluts” within my earshot. Another snarled at me in a one-on-one, “Are you gonna cry again?” I had to fight hard for raises, despite flawless performance reviews, while mediocre male colleagues rose to director-level positions. As I got older, closer to the prospect of dropping everything to have kids like my mom, I found myself taking only part-time jobs, despite their lower pay, assuming I’d have to quit in a few years anyway. It was illogical — my partner and I hadn’t even talked about kids — but it was unconscious.
I found myself replicating my parents’ roles in my personal life, too — even though I was queer. When my ex and I started dating, we’d played around with dominance and submission, but when we moved in together, our power dynamic shifted into something more intense. We developed a kink-aware set of tasks: I’d do all the cooking, greet them with a drink when they walked in the door, and get my nails painted the color they chose. I was replicating my mother’s role, except with full awareness and consent. It felt good, like a release valve, and a subconscious part of me understood why: I was treated like a housewife, but it was because I chose to be, not because my husband trapped me there. Plus, we were queer, so we were sure that whatever we did was feminist and empowering. But the release was temporary, because after the initial excitement wore off, I was still doing what I was told. After we broke up, they entered into a formal master-slave relationship with their lover on the side. What they’d really wanted was full ownership over a person — I’d been an experiment along the way.
How had I fallen into a relationship that was so extreme? In reality, it wasn’t actually that extreme; it was just my parents’ model. But I thought I’d run as far away from that model as possible — I wasn’t even dating a man! — but it hadn’t mattered. My first experience with misogyny had been in my own family, where I’d learned that my role in a relationship was subservience. I’d imprinted on my mother like a duckling and couldn’t shake the instinct without a lot of work, well into adulthood.
My dad would never say I should become a Melania like my mother. He’d expect better for me, an Ivanka life of running a company or arguing in court, something powerful. But men can’t have it both ways: Treat your wife like an object and a maid, and your daughter will internalize those roles. Maybe she’ll figure out how to move beyond them — but maybe she won’t.
It might seem like my experience is just the product of a weird generational moment, while old-school fathers adjust to a more feminist time, but millennial men are replicating the pattern. Straight cis women are finding as they begin to have kids that their husbands don’t do anywhere near as much childcare as they said they would. That means their kids are learning, as I did, that all that independence that women grow up with will disappear when they have kids. They’re learning that men are free to do what they want and women, still, are not. Those lessons stick, and it’s time to let them die.