In the weeks before the presidential election, Libby Chamberlain, an ardent Hillary Clinton fan living in Maine, formed a secret Facebook group. Its purpose was encouraging women to don Clintonian businesswear on their way to the polls, as many eventually did. Pantsuit Nation, Chamberlain says, started out as a “space where people could be enthusiastically, passionately supportive” of Hillary Clinton—a friendly clubhouse of good cheer in an online campaign landscape scarred by hostility, abuse, and threats. The good vibes caught on. Within days, the group’s numbers had exploded; in the final few days before the election its growth really accelerated and surpassed 3 million members, of many genders. Posts dedicating votes to mothers, grandmothers, and children got hundreds of likes. But the fervor and admiration of the group’s members gave way to collective horror on Tuesday night, when it became clear that Clinton wasn’t winning in the rout so many expected. The group’s visibility peaked the following morning, when Clinton cited it in her heartbreaking concession speech.
Standing in front of the cameras at the New Yorker hotel, Clinton thanked the volunteers and supporters who, among other things, “posted on Facebook—even in secret private Facebook sites,” a line which got a hearty laugh from those in the room, suggesting an affection for Pantsuit Nation among her inner circle. And then Clinton, the private group’s heroine and reason for being, added a small, possibly improvised plea: “I want everybody coming out from behind that, and make sure your voices are heard going forward.”
Among those watching the speech, hearts full, was Chamberlain, 33, who had been spending eight to 10 hours each day moderating Pantsuit Nation on top of two part-time jobs and her commitments as a mom to two kids. “I was crying and cheering at the same time,” says Chamberlain. “But it was sad. She was saying, ‘I know that you’re there, I see you, I need other people to see you.’ We need to do better next time.”
Clinton’s comments pointed to a paradox in Pantsuit Nation’s design: The group’s secrecy, and the feeling of safety that created, were crucial to its success, particularly in a campaign marked by antipathy toward women who openly supported Clinton. But there are risks to staying within a secure echo chamber, driven home by the results on Election Day. Now more than ever, these millions of politically engaged people are needed in the public sphere.
“It felt like a rallying cry and a directive from a person I admire more than almost anyone in the world,” Chamberlain says, meaning, of course, Hillary Clinton. “We need to be in a space where we’re not just talking to each other—while also protecting [marginalized] voices.” A week later, the technically “secret” but millions-strong group has become a clearinghouse for grief, solidarity, and planning, with dozens of local offshoots and subgroups. Its founder and members find themselves at a crossroads, along with other stunned progressives, torn between reaching out to fellow travelers or making an immediate push for action. A group as big as Pantsuit Nation has real power, even in a Trump-led America. Should its moderators continue to foster a private place for supporters to lick wounds and offer comfort to the group’s most vulnerable members—immigrants, Muslims, assault survivors—through personal testimony? Should the metaphorically pantsuited masses step out from behind the curtain, as Clinton exhorted them to do in her postelection speech, and protest? One way of doing the latter would be remind the world that they exist in droves, in order to wrest the spotlight away from Trump supporters’ rally-packing enthusiasm. One has to wonder whether the news of a millions-strong group of true Clinton believers, had it broken earlier, could have punctured the media narrative of her unlikability.