When Pantsuit Nation became a viral phenomenon days before the election last November, the private Facebook group was focused on electing the first female president.
What it got instead was something uniquely American: a devastating reminder that this country’s long, unresolved history of white supremacy continues to haunt us.
Many of Pantsuit Nation’s 3.9 million members are white and consider themselves champions of racial equality. Some of them insisted as much when, following the election, conversations about race within the group explored the racism and bigotry deep within the left. Those exchanges often spiraled out of control, with some white women insinuating that black women were being divisive.
If Pantsuit Nation was founded on a whim to celebrate female empowerment, its duty became something more essential: convincing moderate and progressive white people to not only stand in principle with the most vulnerable Americans, but to actively support them while exorcising bigotry from their own hearts and minds.
It’s this same tension that courses through major pop culture and political debates about diversity and representation. Whether people are talking about Confederate, the coming HBO show that imagines an America in which white Southerners won the Civil War, or arguing about the portrayal of race in books written for young adults, the conflict often revolves around just how many white liberals and progressives are eager to defend and preserve a dangerous status quo that doesn’t strike them as outwardly racist or discriminatory.
Pantsuit Nation’s critics say it failed to seize a momentous opportunity to organize millions of people while helping white people get “woke.” Its founder believes that, nearly 10 months after its accidental rise to cultural and social media power, Pantsuit Nation is just beginning to fully wield its influence.
Pantsuit Nation (which is technically a Facebook Page, 501(c)(4) nonprofit, and the 501(c)(3) Pantsuit Nation Foundation) remains dedicated to publishing personal stories as a means of social change. The Facebook group has recently been a supportive refuge for, among many others, a mother of a child with special healthcare needs, a transgender Marine, a young woman who works in Congress, and a son proud of his newly naturalized mother.
The most popular Pantsuit Nation posts get a million views, and the goal is to transform that broad reach into social justice education and political action and participation.
In the past few months, it hired an executive director and a chief operating officer to manage the group’s ambitious plans. Last month it launched a weekly podcast featuring interviews with average citizens and political pros alike about how to do things like run for local office. Every episode includes a “call to action.” The first, in July, urged listeners to pressure their representatives to defend the Affordable Care Act. This week, listeners got information about how to participate in a day of action to protect the provisional legal status of immigrants who arrived to the U.S. as children without documentation.
Pantsuit Nation has also partnered with Calls for Change, an advocacy group that uses weekly email and text alerts to tell subscribers when and how to contact their elected officials about legislation related to issues like paid family leave, racial justice, LGBTQ rights, and immigration. The partnership, which will be announced next week to group members on Facebook, is designed to pair stories with a practical tool for participating in democracy.
“If we’re incrementally changing the way that people understand the world around them, that’s something I’m proud of,” says Libby Chamberlain, the 34-year-old mom of two who first created Pantsuit Nation as a private Facebook Page for a few dozen Hillary Clinton supporters last October.
With zero experience as a campaign staffer, political organizer, or longtime activist, Chamberlain improvised Pantsuit Nation’s backup plan in the wake of Trump’s victory. She cobbled together a crew of 170 volunteer moderators from around the world, few of whom had any formal training in facilitating conversations about bias and discrimination. (That number has since been reduced to roughly 30 people who have all participated in a “diversity and inclusion” training.)
“If we’re incrementally changing the way that people understand the world around them, that’s something I’m proud of.”
Two months after Pantsuit Nation came to life, Chamberlain announced her intention to edit a book of selected posts and turn the group into a nonprofit organization. Proceeds from the book would be shared with contributors and help fund the nonprofit.
Those crucial details, however, weren’t clearly communicated in the book announcement. (Chamberlain worked an average of 60 unpaid hours a week until May when Pantsuit Nation received a grant for progressive startups. Her salary has not drawn from book proceeds.)
By the end of December, columns in HuffPost and the Los Angeles Times declared Pantsuit Nation a “sham” and a “feel-good commodity.” In June, The Ringer ran a review of the book under the headline “Pantsuit Nation’s Tattered Ambition.”
Leslie Caughell, an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Wesleyan University, says watching the evolution of Pantsuit Nation is like watching the evolution of any other major mainstream feminist group.
“How do you make the group a potent political force? And what would they be pushing for?” asks Caughell. “The second question is, are women of color incorporated? Or is this just a white middle-class thing where women can absolve themselves of responsibility?”
Cortney Tunis, the nonprofit’s new executive director, knows the criticism well.
“There’s an interesting dynamic to having started the group and then building infrastructure underneath it,” she says. “We’re never shocked by what anybody writes about us because we’re not perfect.”
And yet, she adds, the women behind Pantsuit Nation can’t afford to be driven by the fear of failure, because the group’s struggles get to the heart of what building an “equitable democracy” means in the 21st century. That idea is meaningless if it’s premised on the guise of liberal inclusiveness as bigotry thrives beneath the surface.
Chamberlain acknowledges Pantsuit Nation must take on frank conversations about oppression within its ranks. In January, it posted a 15-page resource document with links to information about white privilege, colorblindness, and microaggressions. A more comprehensive version, almost twice as long, debuted in July.
Critics, however, argue the group’s focus on emotional storytelling is ineffective in the absence of explicit appeals for political action or self-reflection.
Leslie Mac, an activist and cofounder of Safety Pin Box, a monthly subscription service for “white people striving to better allies in the fight for Black Liberation,” said that storytelling on Pantsuit Nation often revolved around fighting an enemy, like Trump or a Republican politician, who was clearly a bad person doing something unjust or wrong.
“Just hearing stories or sharing stories will not lead to anything tangible being done.”
She believes that framing often prevented members from confronting their own culpability in harming marginalized communities and people of color. Instead, they seemed satisfied by simply responding to posts with a thumbs up, heart, or generic comment.
“Just hearing stories or sharing stories will not lead to anything tangible being done,” says Mac, who spoke about her negative experience with Pantsuit Nation on a Facebook Live in December and hasn’t returned to the group since. She remains skeptical of the group’s recent efforts to connect the personal and political, arguing that they don’t go far enough to mobilize and educate its members.
Chamberlain, who says she respects Mac’s work and perspective, feels that every story posted in the group contains an inherent call to action, whether that’s to learn more about ICE raids, anti-black discrimination, or how to help a local nonprofit.
She doesn’t want to “hijack” the post with a prescriptive message about how people should think or feel after reading it, or create a rule that posts will only be approved if admins can add their own directions about how to be a better ally. Instead, Chamberlain, the moderators, and admins try to offer similar resources and directions in the comments, though those are seen by fewer people than the posts themselves.
And then there’s Facebook’s algorithm, which gives the audience considerable control over what content surfaces most frequently. Chamberlain essentially faces the same pressure as media publishers on Facebook: Continue posting content your audience loves or risk losing your presence in their News Feed.
Last November, Chamberlain and other admins created what they called “story + action” posts that combined personal testimony with a prompt to do something concrete, like calling a legislator about saving the Affordable Care Act or donating to a Flint, Michigan, nonprofit helping those affected by the local water crisis. Chamberlain says many of these posts were less popular than the personal stories submitted by group members. The admins have stopped running calls to action in that format, instead opting for shorter, targeted appeals that spell out exactly what members can do.
“We always see that people’s stories are the most powerful message in the group.”
“In some ways it is an ongoing process of recognizing the power of personal narrative to motivate people,” she says. “We always see that people’s stories are the most powerful message in the group.”
Still, there’s evidence that Chamberlain, her staff, and volunteers are willing to take more risks.
When Lecia Michelle (not her legal name) recently submitted a post to Pantsuit Nation she didn’t think the group’s administrators would approve it.
The post wasn’t like anything else the group is known for publishing. Instead of an emotional first-person account, it linked to a Medium article about how white parents can talk to their children about race.
Until a few months ago, Pantsuit Nation rarely allowed external links. Chamberlain says that approach began to shift in May when admins began sharing linked posts if the member had a personal connection to the content or if it introduced a conversation that wasn’t happening organically in the group or elsewhere.
“The [admin] was like, ‘We want that.’ I was so surprised … I was shocked,” says Lecia, who is a black woman. The post, which appeared in July, received 160 comments, several of them with their own lengthy threads, and 4,500 reactions.
Chamberlain asked moderators to keep an eye out for comments that dismissed Lecia’s concerns or adopted a “colorblind mentality.” Indeed, some threads were as uncomfortable as you’d imagine. Some commenters, who presented or self-identified as white, seemed self-congratulatory when talking about their views on racism. Others had difficulty understanding how their children could actively work to be anti-racist.
Lecia decided to try her luck again this week and sent the admins a second article in the same series, which is produced by a group of women of color and white allies that she works with closely.
Something different happened when the post went live. Pantsuit Nation administrators and moderators, including Chamberlain, repeatedly stepped into the conversation with a set of guidelines for how to engage and posted a link to the group’s comprehensive list of educational resources. They asked some members to take a step back before commenting further. A few of those members even left in protest.
Lecia says this isn’t the Pantsuit Nation that she joined back in December. “The admins and moderators have done a 180,” she says. “I think that because they even allowed the article, something must be changing.”
Like Mac, Lecia believes that Pantsuit Nation could do much more to leverage the power of its members, but her recent encounters felt promising.
“Sometimes I think we nail it and sometimes I think we fail.”
“What’s been really intriguing about Pantsuit Nation is it’s a coalition of people who share interests but have divergent perspectives and they’re trying to keep that coalition together,” Caughell says.
This too mirrors what’s happening nationwide as people of color, in particular, fight to dismantle racist institutions and policies but find white liberals and progressives don’t share their views and priorities.
Whether or not Chamberlain and Pantsuit Nation will succeed where other movements have failed to resolve this conflict depends entirely on how the Facebook Page and nonprofit grow into themselves, and whether they can persuade the audience at their command to transform emotions into action while confronting personal bias and privilege.
Chamberlain is convinced Pantsuit Nation has been and will continue to be effective.
“Sometimes I think we nail it and sometimes I think we fail,” she says. “There’s a lot of room in between those things, and I’m not giving up yet.”