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.
For the time being, members seem to favor the quieter course. Because of the group’s heavy moderation and posting rules, many of the most popular posts on its main Facebook page (what Chamberlain calls “the mothership”) right now retain the personal tone of the pre-election posts, seeking solace away from a world that feels to Pantsuit Nation members like something between a wake and a dystopia. Inside the group, the mood is one of a very large group-therapy session.
Transgender, Muslim, and Latina members have asked fellow Pantsuiters to stand with them in the face of hate and discrimination, and received tens of thousands of supportive comments in response. “As a woman and a Latina I’m feeling lost and afraid. White pantsuit nation friends please tell me you have my back,” one post reads, followed by a chorus of affirmations. “This election season has been so toxic for my relationship with my parents,” another woman in a multiracial family writes. “I was told to go back to my own country today…no one stood up for me,” another popular post reads. Nearly everyone who speaks up is flooded with loving comments. After 57,000 likes and 15,000 comments, one poster who had asked for support amended her post to read: “I want to hug each and [every] one of you!”
There’s a consciousness-raising feeling to these posts, an extension of the way media coverage of the sexual harassment and assault allegations against Donald Trump brought women’s trauma to the fore. “I feel like a group of strangers understand me more than friends I’ve had for decades,” one woman wrote recently, to virtual applause. Some women have posted about being threatened by men in the days after the election, including one who reported that she was menaced by a man wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat and talking about grabbing pussy. Jeanne Lyet Gassman, an Arizona resident who joined Pantsuit Nation after supporting Bernie Sanders in the primary cycle, says she has thought about that post a lot, reflecting on what the group’s spirit of solidarity might mean to sexual assault and harassment survivors. “Before Pantsuit Nation, we might have told a handful of friends about the trauma, received a few pats on the shoulder, and that would have been it,” she says. “But now, this woman and others like her are being empowered.”
The group’s tone is tilted this way for a reason. Chamberlain and 12 other moderators, all early members who span the globe and share timed shifts around the clock, are keeping the focus on testimony and affirmation, taking their cue from Michelle Obama’s catchphrase: “When they go low, we go high.” “We’re taking that to heart,” Chamberlain says. “It’s an important space that people aren’t occupying right now.”
Keeping the group positive may have the advantage of sidestepping the infighting and bad power dynamics that have torpedoed many a smaller, more ideological progressive organizing groups. With millions of members, some tone-deaf moments are inevitable (one well-meaning poster recently asked if non-Muslim women should wear hijabs as a gesture of defiance, and I found some internal criticism, such as a woman of color saying she was “put off” by the white women who didn’t want to argue with Trump supporters over the holidays); but the group has lasted at least this far, and avoided imploding after the election, in part by assuming good faith among other members.
If some intra-movement squabbling is there, it pales in comparison to the volume and enthusiasm. Entire social circles have been swallowed up in Pantsuit Nation madness; when I was added to the group a few days shy of Election Day, I noticed friends and acquaintances from high school, college, graduate school, feminist journalism, online Jane Austen fandom, and new-mom groups, as well as several family members of different ages—all in the mix, liking and commenting on posts. Pantsuit Nation wasn’t the only secret group of its kind—one relative of mine was part of a “Bitches for Hillary” group—but one imagines it was particularly successful because of the personal approach and upbeat tone that Chamberlain and her fellow moderators have fostered. The pantsuit itself operated as sort of a code word for this vibe, a winking reclamation of a derided fashion statement.
Up until the day of the vote, Pantsuit Nation posts largely celebrated the power of the franchise, and the chance to revel in Hillary adulation. The tone on Election Day was near ecstatic, full of “I voted” selfies of members in sharp jackets and suffragette-tribute pearls, little girls smiling at the polls, and plans for watching the glass ceiling shatter. Women from all around the country applauded each other for canvassing and phone-banking.
We know what happened next: Within minutes of the final selfies that night, the jubilant mood evaporated. The tenor of Pantsuit Nation posts turned shell-shocked and defiant, especially after Clinton gave the group its shout-out in her concession speech the next day. Donations, solidarity actions, protests, and demands for immediate action flooded the moderated group, until Chamberlain reaffirmed the guidelines, which include:
DO: Post personal, ORIGINAL, positive stories, testimonials, photos, and videos.
PLEASE DON’T: Post ANY UNORIGINAL CONTENT
DO: Go High
DON’T: Be mean.
“There’s no hiding the fact that there is a lot of fear and sadness and anger and disbelief,” says Chamberlain. “As moderators guiding the group we needed to honor that but do it in a way that didn’t ignite the flames of outrage or this idea that we’re not going to accept the result. We’re trying to keep group focused on positive, reinforcing energy.” Chamberlain says she’s determined to make Pantsuit Nation into a “force in promoting empowerment and advocacy through storytelling, focused on women and politics.” But until things cool down, she’s not ready to commit to a specific course of action beyond that. “We’re all pretty sad right now,” she says. “It’s important to step back, get away from our screens.” While an occasional big petition makes it through moderation, most posts remain personal, even if they are people’s personal action plans. By contrast, in a spinoff group called “Pantsuit Revolution,” the entire feed this week was dominated by links about how and when to oppose Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon as chief strategist.
Some members of Pantsuit Nation I spoke to, e-mailed with, and messaged on Facebook this week have stopped following the group closely in the wake of the election, too disheartened or eager to hit the streets in protest to partake in the storytelling. One radical-leaning Facebook acquaintance of mine has been complaining on her own wall about what she finds facile in the group, like exhortations to buy Pepsi (since deleted) because the CEO hates Trump. But she hasn’t left, she explained, because the supportive messages about people standing up for each other are so touching.
Indeed, members who are still involved think they can eventually thread the needle between private and public, providing a kind of safe space that allows members to find each other, coalesce, and support each other as they move out into the word to take more direct action. In the days since the election, as dozens of new Facebook groups with names ranging from “Fight Trump Abuse” to “Safety Pins” to “Dumbledore’s Army” sprung up, Pantsuit Nation may have been devoted to mourning but its members got busy organizing. Some members have flocked to local chapters or other offshoots like the aforementioned Pantsuit Revolution, a more action-oriented subgroup started by Alysia Davis from Harrisonburg, Virginia.
Right now, members of Davis’s 2,600-plus-member group are planning activities ranging from yard-sign distribution to pen-pal programs to Planned Parenthood escort volunteering. Some local chapters are forming bus caravans to the upcoming Women’s March on Washington, another example of a social-media-enabled mass response to the election. Like Pantsuit Nation, the march is the result of spontaneous outpouring, occurring on social media without the usual nonprofit organization leadership that accompanies rallies in DC. And if Pantsuit Nation is a test for what a spontaneously organized progressive group online can—and can’t—do, this rally (if it goes forward, as it looks like it will) will face an even bigger logistical and ideological gauntlet. It’s easy to be skeptical, but given the failure of traditional progressive infrastructure to stop a Trump presidency, it’s worth watching.
Pantsuit Nation’s leaders are committed to maintaining a refuge from the online flame wars and IRL harassment that have taken place in other spaces. “The outpouring of rage from the other side is overwhelming. People I once respected now seem crazy and cruel,” says Gassman. “Pantsuit Nation reminds me that it is okay to take a step back.“ Even so, the group’s popularity means infiltration by hostile outsiders is doubtless already happening. One woman who asked to remain anonymous told me that Trump supporters had found a call for support she’d posted in the group and targeted her with nasty messages.
Pantsuit Revolution founder Davis says that people have “learned how to misbehave” from the president-elect. “Mansplaining is a real thing,” she adds, explaining why she ended up moving her offshoot group from “closed” to “secret,” so that people’s friends wouldn’t be able to see their membership, just like the original group. At the same time, she expresses the same reservations as Chamberlain about the line between safety and a refusal to fight. “If it’s a nuts-and-bolts group, there’s an argument to be made for operating behind closed doors,” she says. “But there’s also an argument to be made for stepping out behind closed doors once you have your plan in place. We can’t be silent.”