“Storytelling can motivate, but action is still necessary”
In the days after the election, the rapid ascent of Hillary-fan-page-turned-support-group Pantsuit Nation was promisingly fertile ground for anti-Trump action and community building. The group connected nearly four million fired-up women and allies; the potential was boundless.
That is, until the backlash—which by now has been well documented—brought on in large part by founder Libby Chamberlain’s announcement that she’d scored a deal for a Pantsuit Nation book. The move was seen by many members as a betrayal, a selling out of their heartfelt investment. But the group had problems from the start. Women of color were underrepresented and often brushed aside. And moderators set out limiting posts to first-person experiences, neutering the ability of members to share calls to action or important news stories with like-minded people across the nation.
Regional splinter groups are still active and vital, but the national chapter of Pantsuit Nation is basically a crash course in how not to run a political movement. Here are a few lessons we can learn from this disaster, so we can do better next time.
Respect the privacy and work of others in the movement—don’t exploit them for personal fame and fortune.
“I am *beyond* excited to announce that there is going to be a book,” Pantsuit Nation figurehead Libby Chamberlain posted in the group on December 19 (see the public version here):
“A Pantsuit Nation book. A book of YOU. A book BY YOU. A permanent, beautiful, holdable, snuggle-in-bed-able, dogear-able, shareable, tearstainable book. Your voices. Your stories. Our community. Our project. Our message of hope and change.”
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]Feminism that isn’t intersectional is like the tap water in Flint, Michigan—it’s toxic and no longer serves its essential purpose. [/quote]
Her bubbly, enthusiastic post turned out to be totally off the mark—over 4,600 members responded with outrage and disgust before comments on the post were turned off.
“So, instead of using this group as it was intended, admin is now trying to profit from it?” one commenter, who we’ll call June wrote (all commenter names given here are pseudonyms, to avoid breaking the same privacy rule that members felt Chamberlain violated with the book deal). “Not cool. Not cool at all. This is a secret group. Posts aren't public. I'm not in support of this plan, sorry.”
Some got personal: “Gross. I don't want to be associated with your group anymore. Your silence surrounding everyone's questions is very telling. It's a shame that you're a sham, Libby,” wrote Francis.
And several asked about where the profits from the book would go. “Will all proceeds from the book go to charity? I don't think anyone should profit from the personal stories shared in this private group,” added Tammy.
Chamberlain has not responded to multiple requests for comment, but she did write another post (public version here) in the group after her book announcement didn’t get the giddy response she seemed to hope for:
“If you trust me, if you trust what I have created here and fostered, along with our 100+ volunteers, through thousands of hours of work and care and attention, then I ask you to trust me further. I will not let you down. This is the most important project of my life, with the exception of being a mother and a wife. My goal is to do good.”
The follow-up was even more tone-deaf than the announcement. What Chamberlain clearly doesn’t understand is that members feel they’ve been duped; they were promised a private forum to come together and support one another, to share their private hopes and fears, and then were baited and switched when they were told (not asked, told) that there was going to be a book. They don’t trust Chamberlain—that’s exactly the point. And they don’t want this to be the project of her life; they want it to be theirs.
Moving forward, we should remember that if we want to bring people together to create social change and strength in numbers, the best way to achieve those goals is not to then climb on the shoulders of the very people we’ve brought together in an effort to make a name for ourselves.
Listen to marginalized voices, don’t speak for/over them.
Even before the book announcement, many had lost patience with Pantsuit Nation’s white feminism problem. The space was dominated by white women, and women of color felt let down, left out, and irritated.
“People keep posting stories of crying in the grocery store then meeting elderly black men who cheer them up and I'm sorry fam but that narrative has gotten OLD,” wrote Leslie.
A thread was opened for women of color to share their stories, asking white women to sit back and listen. The conversation got completely derailed, as white women once again dominated the conversation. Then a moderator stepped in to contain the derailed discussion of allyship:
“My hope for the post was to see women of color get to lead the discussion—to start with their experiences and respond to fellow group members as dialogue expanded. Unfortunately, the comments did not all go that way. Some did, but most became a conversation dominated by white people about why it was necessary for women of color to have a thread they lead—and why white people were being asked to listen rather that comment.”
“Pantsuit Nation, we need to have a hard conversation about race, feminism, and white feminism. Let’s acknowledge that wherever there are white people, there will be racism. It's the truth. The first step in moving forward is recognizing this.”
No positive social change is going to come about (or ever has come about) without the involvement of marginalized groups. Especially today, one of the worst things about the incoming administration is their complete lack of respect and regard for people of color, LGBTQ people, disabled people, and other marginalized communities. As we fight for the rights of everyone, it's simply not smart to follow suit by excluding voices from these very groups.
Feminism that isn’t intersectional is like the tap water in Flint, Michigan—it’s toxic and no longer serves its essential purpose.
Encourage the free exchange of ideas and resources—don’t limit them.
The very first problem that Pantsuit Nation had was the moderators’ decision to limit posts to first-person accounts. Posting guidelines prohibit “ANY UNORIGINAL CONTENT (articles, memes, links, videos, petitions, quotations, breaking news, links to other Facebook pages or groups, etc.).”
There is, of course, immense value in sharing personal stories, especially for members who live in red states and were isolated, disconnected from others who were feeling afraid and angry. “Reading the other stories made me feel more connected to other people feeling the same as I did, and that is a very important feeling,” Roberta, a member who lives in a county that voted for Trump, explained over email.
While a sense of community was important to foster in the first shell-shocked days after the election, sharing solipsistic anecdotes about how one woman told off a Trump supporter at the drug store and how another baked cookies for her Muslim neighbor were never going to be enough to stand up to the powers the group intended to fight. Storytelling can motivate, but action is still necessary: phone calls to representatives, petitions to the White House, tangible steps toward organizing the Women’s March on Washington. Action. One of the most powerful possibilities of Pantsuit Nation was that it was a huge network through which phone campaigns and similar actions could be mobilized. But the elimination of calls to action quashed that potential.
As one member Stephanie wrote, “This group has devolved into an archive of petty drama and people patting themselves on the back for ‘helping’ the pitiful Others of this country.”
The anger and fear instilled in so many of us by Trump’s election (and endless stream of vitriol) has a chance to move a generation of activists beyond the passive, performative social-media activism of Facebook profile filters and “pray for wherever” hashtags. None of us should do anything to limit that fire.
We’re still in the early, scrambling days of a newly motivated political age. We’re going to make mistakes. But as we move forward, if we have any chance of achieving our goals, we have to learn from them. Don’t let Pantsuit Nation be just a joke or even a sore spot. Let it be a lesson.