It began with a simple text message conversation, the morning after the third presidential debate in October, and a whimsical idea. How about wearing a pantsuit to the polls, Libby Chamberlain suggested to a friend, to show support for Hillary Clinton?
Chamberlain, now 33, hardly intended to spark a social movement — or a social media movement. Mother to two small children, she had just gone back to work and was juggling two part-time jobs at local high schools near her home in Brooklin, Maine, a town of about 700 people, where her husband builds boats.
“This truly came out of nowhere,” Chamberlain says of the Facebook group that grew out of her idea, Pantsuit Nation, which candidate Clinton even referenced in her concession speech, thanking supporters “even in secret, private Facebook sites” who kept the faith. “I have no background in this sort of thing,” Chamberlain adds, “and my internet is the slowest thing ever.”
Slow internet or not, the invite-only group now has just under 4 million members — and now there’s a book, too. “Pantsuit Nation,” edited by Chamberlain and released this month, seeks to harness the energy of the days surrounding the 2016 election, focusing on about 250 of the stories posted on Facebook by (mostly) women across the country.
Why go back in time? Isn’t the election over? To one young woman whose post is featured in the book, the point is now to use these stories to continue to spread a message. Or various messages.
“We have this amazing energy,” says Cristina Lopez, 28, of Phoenix, “from before the election, when we were saying, ‘This is why I am voting,’ to now, where we’re saying, ‘We didn’t end up where we thought we would, so how can we get to where we need to be?’”
The book’s genesis wasn’t without controversy. When the deal was announced in December, some expressed their dismay online, even accusing Chamberlain of selling out, or fearing she’d use people’s stories without their permission. Chamberlain acknowledges there was confusion, and that she should have been clearer right away that she would only use posts when given express permission. She’s also explained in detail on her blog that proceeds will go, after necessary costs and after paying contributors a set fee, to the nonprofit Pantsuit Nation Foundation — where she hopes to be able to hire a small staff to keep the group going and working toward “creating platforms for these stories to be shared beyond Facebook, beyond a book.”
Chamberlain says she reached out by private Facebook message to over 700 contributors of both written posts and photos, aiming for entries that had resonated with the community. She got negative feedback from only one of those people, she says; most wanted to learn more (and some stayed silent, whether they saw her query or not.)
Some posts featured in the book express hope about the election, or fear. Others are detailed personal anecdotes. Hanadi Chehabeddine, a Lebanese-born Muslim woman in Minneapolis, wrote before the election of sitting in a hair salon and hearing a hairdresser and her client discussing Muslims, engaging in stereotypes, and her subsequent, unsuccessful effort to have an informative conversation with the duo.
“I posted on Pantsuit Nation because I felt the need to share my emotional state,” says Chehabeddine, 40. “For a Muslim, it was very intense and nerve-wracking to go through the election period and not know what was coming our way.” At one point, she had mused to her daughter about leaving the country if Donald Trump were elected. But the reaction she got to her post, she says, “was pivotal to my life.”
“The attention it got made me feel like there is something I have to share regardless of what is going on politically,” she says, adding that her experience has bolstered her desire to serve as an activist for her community.
Likewise, for Lopez, an immigrant from Mexico, the support she felt was crucial. She wrote her own post soon after participating in early voting. In it, she declared she had become a citizen in time “to vote for Hillary Clinton and help make history as a woman, as an immigrant, and as a Latina.” Afterward, she says, she went “through the various stages — grief, denial.” But she said she was also emboldened by the positive response to her post, particularly the person who wrote, “The American dream is alive in this young woman.” She’s now trying to figure out in what role she can best contribute to immigration reform.
Talamieka Brice, of Ridgeland, Mississippi, says she was happy to be able to find other like-minded people in her own red state, via Pantsuit Nation. She’s also struck up online friendships with people from as far as Bulgaria and Switzerland, she says, who were moved by her postelection post, in which she spoke of fearing for her young son as he grows up to be a black man in America.
Brice, 36, says she was most of all thrilled that her words had made an impact. “My grandfather couldn’t read or write,” she notes, “so to now be in this platform, where something I wrote a couple of generations afterward could affect so many people, it’s been very humbling.”
Not everyone finds the group still relevant, or thinks the book is a good idea. Some reviews have suggested it’s time to look forward, not back — or to look back in a different way.
“There’s certainly value in sharing uplifting stories …,” wrote Daily Beast senior editor Erin Gloria Ryan in December, “and in working to cheer up the dejected. But, despite the season, now isn’t the time to turn from Clinton’s mistakes to Chicken Soup for the Soul; it’s the time for some serious come-to-Jesus reflection.”
Jocelyn Noveck, AP