In Hillary Clinton’s concession speech last Wednesday, she thanked supporters, activists, community leaders — and called upon the members of secret Facebook groups to speak out. “I want everybody coming out from behind that,” she said. “And make sure your voices are heard going forward.”
It was a small change to a personal message she had sent to Pantsuit Nation, an invite-only Facebook group, the week before. “For some of you, it’s been difficult to feel like you could wear your support on your sleeve,” that note read in part. “And that’s why this community has been such a special place.” The group was designed as a space to celebrate the first woman president, but it was particularly appealing to people who felt uncomfortable telling people in their real-world circles that they were voting for Clinton — ”blue dots” in the red seas of conservative states, as Chamberlain called them in a New York Times profile. In her pre-election confidence, Clinton appeared fine with that. But now the game has changed.
Libby Chamberlain, who lives in the tiny coastal town of Brooklin, Maine, started Pantsuit Nation about three weeks before Election Day. It quickly racked up 3 million members despite its secrecy. Many in Pantsuit Nation have started referring to themselves as the “silent majority,” a term popularized by President Nixon to describe Middle Americans that didn’t receive the media attention the counter-culture forces of the time did. It was dredged up again most recently by Trump supporters, who while not literally the majority (Clinton won the popular vote) certainly were more widespread than polling suggested. But some of the women of Pantsuit Nation want to redefine the term to mean people who, out of politeness, apathy, or fear, didn’t say enough before Trump was elected, and now find themselves with a lot more to say.
Chamberlain posted a message to the group just hours after Clinton conceded. “This is just the beginning. Pantsuit Nation is MORE important today than it was yesterday,” she wrote. “Secretary Clinton called on us in her incredible, gracious speech this morning. We need to make our voices heard.” The reaction was swift: after a massive influx of activity, the moderators of Pantsuit Nation briefly shut off the ability to add new posts to the page due to the overwhelming response. Many of the posts were mournful, personal stories; others were efforts to connect emotionally. Some members posted Thanksgiving invitations for those who will find it hard to face their pro-Trump families for the holidays. But most of the posts were suggestions for next steps, a sort of rapid-fire spitball session, with one idea building off the next.
There’s an emerging push for Pantsuit Nation to become a super PAC, or another sort of official organization in which 3 million members paying even modest dues could quickly amass a fortune to be leveraged politically. In a phone interview with The Verge, however, Chamberlain emphasized that that option was not being considered.
Chamberlain herself says the group will remain primarily a safe space to share stories, and that storytelling “can be just as powerful in making a difference in the trajectory of our country” as more “visible or traditional” forms of activism like protesting and grassroots organizing. Chamberlain says she and a leadership team of volunteers are working on setting up a website that directs members to like-minded nonprofits and other places to donate money, and that they’ll follow Clinton’s directive to come out of hiding by setting up public Instagram and Twitter accounts. As for whether Pantsuit Nation’s national chapter is working on anything else, Chamberlain said “No, that’s about it.”
But some Pantsuit Nation members see a path forward in smaller, state-run chapters. Dozens of localized groups have popped up around the country — many in liberal areas like New York City, Ventura County, and Atlanta, but also in areas where Clinton struggled, like Florida, Central Pennsylvania, North Texas, and South Dakota. Over 30 more local chapters have sprung up for regions around the country; there’s even a group based in Germany.
One member points out that with a coalition of 3 million people, the group should easily be able to fund “watchers, moderators, platforms, buses to DC for protests.” “What about a voter relocation program for future elections?” another asks, adding that she might be willing to participate if some moving costs were defrayed.
Some women offer up professional services, like a brand marketing executive who says “I would like to talk with you about organizing as a non-profit (or possibly for-profit) women’s leadership foundation. This is a pivotal time as you say. I have a 15-year-old daughter.”
Dona Murphey, an organizer from Texas, told The Verge in an email that she values the work the national group has done, but implied that local groups shouldn’t be waiting on marching orders. “Across the country, it seems many were waiting, and continue to wait, for specific direction from Pantsuit Nation,” she explains. “We decided early on to harness that energy and to move forward… even prior to the election, we focused heavily on how to channel positive energy into discrete change.” Murphey says the Texas group is referring to itself as the Pantsuit Republic, and will conduct polling this week to decide on three to four specific issues behind which they can mobilize.
Murphey says one early priority for the group is to identify which groups of Texans voted for Clinton and why, and then figure out how to serve them with a unified political platform. They’ll focus grassroots political efforts, she says, on “catapulting Pantsuiters and our allies into public office.” The Texas group is also interested in creating economic pressure by supporting businesses with progressive worldviews and avoiding those that fall in line with Trump’s platform. To that end, they’ve established a database of small businesses owned by Pantsuit Republic members — which they’re calling “Pantsuit Yelp” — and are seeking developers interested in expanding the database into a nationwide tool.
Even in the week since the election, however, these broader ambitions are running up against logistical constraints. Elizabeth Rosen, an organizer in the Southwest Florida Pantsuit Nation group, told The Verge that she has started dedicating about three hours per day to the group: “Those are three very broken hours — respond to inquiries while running errands, adding group members between rushes at my family’s restaurant, banning trolls from my driveway.” Kasey Greenhaw, a registered Republican with some political experience from her time fundraising for a gubernatorial candidate in Oklahoma, wants to offer up her skills to a new, wide-ranging anti-Trump movement by creating voter guides and a grading system for politicians. But she’s also a mother with a full-time job and expresses concern about finding the time.
It’s a theme among the local and state-level page administrators: they’re not politicians. They have jobs, children, and full plates already. Like many of us, they have never been called upon to be this doggedly political in their lifetimes. We’ve seen online activists rally around a candidate or cause successfully (Bernie Sanders had a powerful coalition throughout the primaries), but many fizzle, and this one will be facing a particularly bleak landscape — one set to last at least four years.
The group also finds itself serving as a microcosm of the struggle for inclusivity that came to the forefront in the 2016 campaign. The main Pantsuit Nation is largely white (at least in part because the invite-only structure encourages a homogenous group), and some women of color worry that their voices may get lost in the shuffle. “I’m a black woman living in Oregon. I’m concerned that there are no women of color in Pantsuit Nation,” writes one member. “Black women supported Hillary yet were excluded from these types of groups. If you are out there, would be good to know.”
Murphey emphasized that the Texas page will not “censor” any of this conversation, adding “more so than has been explicit in the national organization, we believe it to be critical to engage in difficult dialogue.”
Even with Clinton’s concession speech directive, some women still feel concerned about stepping out of the safety of a private Facebook group. Two women from Texas whom I reached out to told me that they weren’t comfortable having their names on the record as Clinton supporters. Rosen acknowledged that the secrecy of the groups is a tricky situation — it gives Pantsuit Nation an aura of being “exclusive,” but “maybe a blue dot on a red field doesn’t want everyone in his or her social media sphere to know about these affiliations.”
She also argued in favor of moving offline, noting that it’s more powerful to talk to people in person because when Trump supporters read posts on Facebook “they don’t see you as human, it’s just more words and more information.”
Something like Pantsuit Nation is what we were promised Facebook and Twitter and myriad forums would be for, and in a twisted way, the fact that it operates using the same structures as this election’s right-wing, often virulently racist groups should make us optimistic about its chances of success.
These tools were built with optimistic assumptions about humanity at their core, but whether out of neglect or because they were designed mostly by men who did not foresee that they would be used to carry out dogged harassment, they’ve become places for trolls to thrive and launch hateful attacks. This election has already shown that grassroots online communities can be a powerful political force, in the form of largely white men coming together on the internet to collectively embolden each other, on places like Reddit, Twitter, and 4chan. Facebook also provided a place to gather, and its mechanics helped radicalize people who were not already radical, pushing them to places where they felt safe to express hatred and resentment.
Pantsuit Nation also started as a space for people who didn’t feel like they had a place to affirm their beliefs — it swelled and convinced them that like-minded people exist and are everywhere. In some of the conversations on the page, you can see people going from individually sad to collectively emboldened to action. It may be the first liberal American political movement to experience such a wild leg up — taking less than a month to nab millions of loyal adherents. Black Lives Matter, the obvious precursor, has leveraged Twitter and Vine to get news coverage of protests and police violence but has never been gifted quite so unwieldy a crowd in one place.
Three million people looped together is an activist jackpot, but the question now is whether Pantsuit Nation’s offshoots are willing to do something more than support each other on the internet. (They already have an advantage over trolls by way of using their real names). This online behemoth could be galvanized into a real political force, and if it does it will be fascinating to watch. But nearly half of the US didn’t participate in this election. When future generations write term papers about it, they’ll discuss the danger of sitting things out. If Pantsuit Nation doesn’t take sustained action, it will become yet another failure of the many to opt-in for democracy.