Inside the Civil War Over Hillary Clinton's 'Pantsuit Nation'

Clinton's biggest Facebook fan club has been divided by a book deal and fundamental arguments over online activism.

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Dec 27 2016, 3:12pm

(Pietsch/The Register-Guard via AP)

On November 9, there was little to be hopeful about. In my New York City bubble, the walk to the subway was agonizing and joyless, the sky dark gray, as if the sun had tried to come up and failed. The subway itself was crowded as usual, but eerily silent, the city in a state of collective mourning and distress. It was hard to imagine the world as it had been a day earlier, when Hillary Clinton supporters like myself were riding high, readying for a coronation of sorts. Pantsuit Nation, a Facebook group started by a Maine woman named Libby Chamberlain, had been saturated with thousands of photos of women, clad in monochrome pantsuits of varying styles, heading to their polling places to cast their joyous votes for Hillary Clinton.

There had been, all election long, much talk about a dearth of enthusiasm for Clinton. But the warriors of Pantsuit Nation weren't buying it; that Tuesday, they had marched to the polls with something greater than pride, chronicling the day on Facebook alongside their mothers and grandmothers, ready to elect the first woman president in US history.

The Facebook group had been founded by Chamberlain in October and gained millions of members in mere weeks, becoming on online depository of love of everything Clinton, including her signature garment. I joined in the days preceding the election, having been invited to the "secret group" by a friend's mom. "One of my goals was to reclaim the pantsuit as something empowering and revolutionary and exciting," Chamberlain recently told the New York Times.

Pantsuit Nation survived Clinton's sudden, shocking defeat, but wasn't abandoned. Instead it was reborn as a digital portal of hope and resistance, a collection of personal tales of racism and sexism and xenophobia, but also stories of adversity overcome or the kindness of neighbors and fellow commuters. Before the election, many of the group's posts showed women in white honoring the suffragists, their muscles flexed like Rosie the Riveter, smiling wide about the prospect of a shattered glass ceiling. In the wake of Clinton's loss, though, the group became a home for the loyal opposition, a place where devastation could be galvanized. The group boasted a diverse crop of users, including even white male Republicans dismayed by the bigoted, isolationist tenets of Trumpism. LGBTQ kids in the Rust Belt wrote about their lives and their struggles; black men and women recorded days increasingly marred by acts of racism both subtle and overt. Some members even said the group had given them the courage to leave abusive relationships. Others confided in their fellow pantsuiters about obstacles too personal to repeat, and some sought to educate members about their own blind spots.

And now, the 4 million member-strong Facebook assembly is bitterly divided.

On December 20, Chamberlain announced that she had secured a high-profile book deal based on the group, a piece of news that was denounced by members who worried she had always planned to cash in on what they thought was a safe space to share their stories. To many, it seemed that Pantsuit Nation was under siege by the kind of corporate feminism that monetized injustice by exploiting personal pain for profit. "I am not a commodity," one user wrote.  "White feminism strikes again," wrote another. "You took something safe and innocent and turned it into an opportunity for you," protested a third.

Chamberlain, who did not respond to my request for comment, rebutted the anger in kind, with a post of her own on December 21: "This group started with the simplest of premises: wear a pantsuit on November 8," she explained. "So much has happened since then. So much heartbreak and anger and fear. But my goals for this group remain the same." She went on to clarify that participation in the book is voluntary, that no one who wants their stories kept secret will have them publicized. She also explained that the book's proceeds will support organizations like the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center. But her statement, which seemed like an earnest, if belated, attempt to quell the disappointment, didn't seem to be enough for some of Chamberlain's detractors.

"The thing that bothered me the most about the book deal was that I had to read about it elsewhere before the woman who created the group could tell us," a college-aged member named Jean told me. "(The stories) brought so much positivity to me after the election. I think her intentions are in the right place, but I don't know that she went about her idea in the correct manner."

Many felt scorned by the book deal because of how emotionally connected to the group they had become. "The voices. The words. The emotions. I was suddenly connected to millions of people I didn't know but cared for and became deeply concerned for their welfare," said Richele, a mother of one from New York State who was invited to join by a friend. "It became an effective space because it became, for me, a place of learning."

Ashley, the only woman working at an Orlando-based clothing brand, joined PSN in October. "It was a really great place for me to vent my frustrations I normally couldn't speak up about in real life." After the election, though, she unfollowed. "It became a place for mostly white people to share their stories of being White Saviors to minorities and other disenfranchised people. Once the story of the book deal came out… It didn't sit well with me that the group had become a brand, a place of business, instead of being the safe space it once was."

"Now the book is coming out, and all this hype about the secrecy, the safe place, the camaraderie, it all feels like a lie. She is going to profit from so many personal stories, and I fear the book will be majority white, as many POC left the group a long time ago," Melissa, a black woman from San Antonio, told me. "I feel she is trying to be [popular Facebook page] Humans of New York."

As Ashley and Melissa's criticisms suggest, the group has more issues than Chamberlain's decision to turn it into a book. Two months after its inception, Pantsuit Nation is experiencing the growing pains to which many grassroots movement, digital or otherwise, succumb. The shock and fear aroused by the incoming Trump administration has left many of its members feeling hopeless, wondering how best to combat injustice. Naturally, this has precipitated some infighting, with competing factions of the group divided over its future. Some, as evident by comments on Chamberlain's initial post, feel the group as it was initially conceived was good enough, a small but expanding corner of the internet for the exchange of stories and methods of resistance. Others see it as just another permutation of what's known as "slacktivism," social media posturing that ultimately has no effect on the real world. And, finally, for a third cohort of PSN members, who've taken to the group to defend Chamberlain's intentions, the book deal can only mean good things, among them increased visibility for its cause.

Kag, who lives in Baltimore, joined the group just before the election and found the stories heartwarming and mobilizing. "As a black woman in America, I was really astounded at how quickly and efficiently people were able to unite and seemingly move into action. I was struck by the fact that many white people were facing for the first time what African Americans have been facing for centuries," she told me. "But no one is going to change overnight. That requires a lot of work. So, being in the group, I observed that there were many who really want to learn, who are really open to learning and who really want change. As far as this lady and this book goes, the jury is still out."

Jake Nevins is a writer living in New York City.

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