Lily Herman is a contributing editor at Refinery29. All opinions are her own.
This week, Melania Trump took the stage at the United Nations to denounce bullying, an initiative she’s taken on as First Lady of the United States. “By our own example we must teach children to be good stewards of the world they will inherit,” she said. “We must remember that they are watching and listening...As adults we are not merely responsible. We are accountable.”
If you feel like we rarely hear from Melania, that’s because we seldom do. And when she does get the spotlight, it’s usually in defense of her husband. “I think he hears me. But he will do what he wants to do on the end. He's an adult,” she argued in the past. “He knows the consequences. And I give him my opinion. And he could do whatever he likes with it.” According to her spokesperson, she also said on a different occasion that “when her husband gets attacked, he will punch back 10 times harder.”
Given that her spouse (you know, the president) frequently lashes out at people on Twitter, mocked a reporter with disabilities, and tried to physically intimidate his presidential opponent during a debate, it’s strange that this woman would choose ridding the country of bullying as her rallying cry. Sure, it’s probably slim pickings when it comes to universally praised and generally apolitical First Lady causes that would suit Melania, but at the same time, why haven’t her people even tried to quietly phase out this particular initiative? After all, she’s widely mocked whenever she starts preaching about adults being good role models for their children. And when she does get the chance to speak, why is it only on a subject that makes her look both complicit and aloof?
But Melania isn’t the only hypocritical woman in the Trump family making excuses for the president. Trump’s empathy-light daughter Ivanka has also tried to do mountains of backpedaling after it became obvious that her father didn’t actually value what she had to say, arguing that he was going to do whatever he wanted anyway. She later said she was also trying to “stay out of politics” — a peculiar statement that made no sense given her actual position in the White House.
It’s easy to tweet something sassy about Melania’s absurd platform or Ivanka’s tone-deaf contradictions and move on; believe me, I’ve done it, too. But the best thing we can do in this situation is make it clear to each other and young people in general that these are not the people we should look to lead any charge, especially one about eschewing stereotypes, changing perceptions, and accepting others.
The problem isn’t just that both of these women completely contradict themselves; they’re also doing extreme harm to the populations they claim to want to help the most. Take Melania, for instance: She’s currently one of the most visible women in the U.S., and she’s the living embodiment of the sexist idea that women should be seen and not heard. Studies show that children, Melania’s supposed demographic, suffer from higher rates of depression, violence, and suicide when they’re confined to rigid gender-specific expectations, and Melania’s strict adherence to gender stereotypes (the quiet woman who supports her man) certainly isn’t leading by example. Social conservatives often use terms like “graceful” and “classy” to describe women like Melania, but don’t be mistaken: She’s silenced. Additionally, she’s neither graceful nor classy by continuing to stand by her husband’s atrocious behavior.
And then there’s Ivanka. The self-proclaimed women’s empowerment expert routinely accepts that her opinion isn’t wanted while her father gives her unqualified husband gigantic to-dos like somehow fixing Middle Eastern relationships and supposedly bringing private sector ideas to government. Ivanka tells women that they should stand up for themselves and ask for more — but only if men say that’s okay. (Spoiler: Men will never say that’s okay.)
What can you do? Be your own leader in this regard. Speak to younger women and girls about what both of these Trump women are doing. Have conversations about those uncomfortable and unacceptable relationship dynamics. Even some of the most progressive women often bristle when people talk to them about gender or relationship roles; it’s so ingrained in us that we have to act in certain ways in our personal and professional lives. But often larger women’s rights issues like abortion or maternity leave start with having honest, frank discussions about these more normalized social behaviors we all encounter every day. One of those? The expectation that women’s opinions shouldn’t be taken seriously when they need to “stand by their men.”
Both Melania and Ivanka Trump are the types of women we don’t want to be. But we need to take it a step further: It’s about the why, not just the what.