Activism and Slacktivism: Pantsuit Nation Ten Months After Trump
Hundreds of commenters rushed to answer her call to action and contact their representatives. Hundreds more offered messages of comfort or shared their own personal stories. When news outlets reported that the Trump Administration planned to suspend DACA, Candia turned to Pantsuit Nation.
Experiences like Candia’s are common in Pantsuit Nation. The “secret” Facebook group was created days before the election to provide a space for supporters of Hillary Clinton LAW ‘73 to openly and unabashedly display their affection for their chosen candidate. On Election Day, triumphant photos of pantsuit-clad voters flooded the group by the thousands. Following Clinton’s loss, the group became a space instead for communal mourning. In the ten months since the election, Pantsuit Nation has done anything but fade away. Instead, it has experienced both growth and conflict as it attempts to define and navigate its role in a post-electoral world.
The backbone of Pantsuit Nation remains the sharing of individual stories like Candia’s. On its official website, Pantsuit Nation affirms “the empathetic potential of first-person narrative to create social change.” However, the scope of these narratives has significantly broadened since November. Originally centered on the various ways Hillary Clinton had inspired members, posts have since shifted to encompass a wide range of subject matter. In often startlingly intimate detail, individuals share their experiences of living in America as women, immigrants, racial minorities, and members of the LGBTQ community. Specific hostile actions taken by the Trump administration such as the suspension of DACA and the exclusion of transgender citizens from the military prompted flurries of activity. Since the election, the group has coalesced around a broadly progressive, anti-Trump agenda rather than an explicitly pro-Hillary one.
This development into a broader umbrella of progressivism has not been completely smooth. Pantsuit Nation has confronted internal conflicts over race and “white feminism,” with frustrated members of racial minorities feeling that their voices were still being ignored and accusing white group members of speaking over them. In response, organizers released a lengthy statement affirming the group’s commitment to intersectional feminism and addressing the concerns raised by people of color in the group. The post, published in December 2016, requests that white members be aware of their privilege and advises them that “intersectional feminism can only be achieved by listening to the voices of women of color. Only women of color can tell you what women of color need. When they speak of their experiences, that is the time to listen.” The organizing board of Pantsuit Nation has also expanded to include a more diverse range of identities and perspectives.
Further controversy came in the form of founder Libby Chamberlain ‘06, whose decision to compile members’ stories into a “holdable, snuggle-in-bed-able, dogear-able, shareable, tearstainable book” outraged many. Some saw it as an attempt to commercialize stories shared in confidence. Comments below Chamberlain’s announcement express disappointment and even outrage. “It was a treasure to be part of this group; however, it no longer feels safe but exploitative,” wrote one member. Others called her a “sellout,” even drawing comparisons between her and Trump. Chamberlain was forced to defend her decision, promising that she would request permission before publishing any member’s post. The Politic spoke with several active members of the group who were supportive of Chamberlain’s decision, believing that a book might help spread the stories which had so moved and affected them. Pantsuit Nation—the book—was released in May with little fanfare.
Besides the ethics of Chamberlain’s motivations, some have derided the decision to publish a book on the basis that, as writer Katie Knibbs stated in an op-ed for the LA Times, “A coffee-table book has never made me want to take political action.” Critics have condemned Pantsuit Nation’s “slacktivism” and “privileged feel-goodery” for failing to lead to any concrete change in the non-digital world. As with all online groups, Pantsuit Nation has faced charges of breeding complacency among followers who conflate commenting in an online forum with true advocacy.
Yet members themselves have been the first to push back against such a characterization. Mathew Weigand, a transgendered 21-year-old who posted a passionate response to the announced ban on transgender members in the military, reported in an interview with The Politic that he saw “not people’s reports on what they intended to do but what they did do”. In a poll posted in the group on September 14, nearly 3,000 members reported having “participated in political action because of, at least in part, Pantsuit Nation”. More concretely, more than 2,000 reported attending events and protests as a result of Pantsuit Nation, and 2,000 more said they donated to a nonprofit or candidate due to Pantsuit Nation.
Organizers themselves are also sensitive to charges of inefficiency and “slacktivism”. They have taken several major steps in attempting to expand the influence of Pantsuit Nation, the most significant of which was the creation of a nonprofit dedicated to “building a foundation for a more equitable and engaged democracy.” However, despite its lofty goals, the Pantsuit Nation foundation seems to offer little in the way of unique approaches. Its website offers two ways to take action and get involved. The first is a partnership with existing organization Calls for Change to facilitate more convenient contact with elected representatives, and the second is simply a 28 page “resource document” containing hundreds of links to videos, articles, books, blog pages, progressive Twitter and Facebook accounts, and progressive news platforms. Aside from promoting other existing resources, Pantsuit Nation has done little in the way of organizing concerted activism.
In the aftermath of Clinton’s loss, many in Pantsuit Nation grew frustrated with the group’s reluctance in mobilizing its membership to take meaningful action. As a result, many formed local splinter groups to focus on grassroots mobilization and concrete political change. Action Together was one of these.
Dr. Valerie Horsley, CEO of Action Together Connecticut and Associate Professor of Biology, sees Action Together’s decision to break off from Pantsuit Nation as a necessary one. She contends that Pantsuit Nation was not originally formed to be an activist organization, but rather merely a social group for supporters of Hillary Clinton.
In an interview with The Politic, Horsley said, “They initially set this [Pantsuit Nation] up as just ‘we should wear pantsuits to vote for the next president’ and so they didn’t intend for it to be an activist organization.” She cites other local splinter groups such as Indivisible that engaged in grassroots activism to supplement the purely virtual world of Pantsuit Nation. As a result, she sees Pantsuit Nation’s more recent attempts to pivot to activism as too little, too late—as she told The Politic, “they lost all the people”.
Still, the “feel-good” value of Pantsuit Nation so derided by critics has created a safe haven for many. The positive emotional impact the group has on individuals at moments of particular vulnerability is indisputable. Weigand described hearing the news of the ban as something that he “just wasn’t able to let go of” due to having once enlisted himself, and posting in the group brought a sense of empowerment. He described the community as “the most powerful and empowering people I’ve ever encountered in my life” and reflected on how much more open-minded and inclusive the group has caused him to become.
Melani Candia, the Dreamer who shared so poignantly her reaction to the DACA suspension, emphasized the sense of community and shared strength the group provides. She told The Politic in an interview: “For the past few months ever since the announcement on DACA I’ve had a ball consistently in my chest…that ball is there and it’s stuck in my chest and it’s gonna be for a long time until we can get some sort of legislation done but it deflates every time I read a post [on Pantsuit Nation]. It deflates every time I go back to one of my posts and read something supportive.” In Candia’s words, “it makes one a little braver to know that it’s not a lone fight”. And perhaps that is valuable enough.