Can Pantsuit Nation survive its book deal?

Can Pantsuit Nation Survive Its Book Deal?

Can Pantsuit Nation Survive Its Book Deal?

What women really think.
Dec. 22 2016 4:13 PM

Can Pantsuit Nation Survive Its Book Deal?

Critics in the nearly 4 million–member group say they wanted to fight Trump. Instead, they’re getting a collection of heartwarming stories.

Campaign workers at a local Hillary Clinton organizing office wait for U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to visit during a stop in San Diego, California, United States, June 2, 2016.
Campaign workers at a Hillary Clinton organizing office wait for Clinton to visit during a stop in San Diego on June 2.

Mike Blake/Reuters

In her Nov. 9 concession speech, Hillary Clinton threw a little lighthearted shade at Pantsuit Nation, the secret pro-Clinton Facebook group that had attracted more than 2.5 million members in the three weeks before the election. “I want everybody to come out from behind that,” Clinton said in her address. “Make sure your voices are heard going forward.”

Christina Cauterucci Christina Cauterucci

Christina Cauterucci is a Slate staff writer.

She may get her wish. On Monday, Pantsuit Nation founder Libby Chamberlain announced on Facebook that she’d accepted a book deal with Flatiron Books. In the weeks since Clinton’s unexpected loss, group members—mostly women—have used the space to share stories of grief, harassment, personal trials and triumphs, and heartwarming everyday moments. Chamberlain plans to turn those stories into a “permanent, beautiful, holdable, snuggle-in-bed-able, dogear-able, shareable, tearstainable” volume set to publish less than five months from now, on May 9.

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On Pantsuit Nation’s separate public page, Chamberlain wrote a post saying that the book will only take stories and photos from authors who give explicit written permission. But many members feel betrayed by the apparent shift in the group’s purpose. Comments on Chamberlain’s announcement posts are filled with accusations of profiteering, manipulation, and failing to use the potential power of a now 3.9 million–member group for purposes beyond personal gain. Though it’s difficult to assess how much of Pantsuit Nation is distressed about the book deal, one commenter claimed the page had lost 12,000 members in the 12 hours after Chamberlain’s announcement; we couldn’t confirm that, but dozens of commenter names are now gray instead of blue, indicating that they’re no longer in the group. And there is now a separate Facebook page for people who want to protest Chamberlain’s decision (so far it does not have many members).

Like the creators of the now-gargantuan Women’s March on Washington, Chamberlain, who worked as a part-time school administrator before launching the group, started Pantsuit with no ambitions or expectations for how it would explode—it was just a few dozen friends discussing Election Day. She soon found herself marshaling a page that, by Nov. 8, was getting about 1,000 post requests every few minutes. It’s hard to blame her for wanting to turn that momentum into something tangible.

But some members don’t think a book is the right outlet for the group’s potential. One of the major criticisms the former Pantsuit faithful have lobbed at Chamberlain is that she has squandered the group’s capacity for socio-political change in favor of a feel-good Humans of New York–style archive of stories that capitalize on suffering and turn marginalized people into objects of pity or rescue. “Our charge going forward—our MISSION—is no less than to shift the course of history,” Chamberlain wrote in her book announcement. “And we’ll do it through stories.”

The organizing power of a 3.9 million–member Facebook group is potentially enormous—members reported donating more than $216,000 to the Clinton campaign through a Pantsuit Nation fundraising effort before the election. But Chamberlain never fully harnessed it. She and a team of volunteer moderators approve posts before they go up; users say posts that encouraged political action were declined. “Many people, including me, begged and pleaded daily to move to action,” Pantsuit Nation member Nicole Myers told me. “There were so many people planning so many actions and every single one of them was denied or removed.”

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“We came to fight Trump,” she continued. “Instead, [Chamberlain] made a coffee table book? Really? Not only are there millions of us, but we are passionate and ready to go. A coffee table book feels like a kick in the teeth.”

Group member Kathryn Herkner Garra says Pantsuit Nation members “were asked not to share links with news that would inspire activism … links or invites to calls for action, no fundraising of any kind.” Whether it was an earnest effort to prevent scammers from taking advantage of a grieving group with ready wallets or an attempt to remain as politically neutral (and thus, mass-appealing) as possible, Pantsuit Nation’s rule against user-organized activism had the effect of stymieing what could have been meaningful action. For instance, posting guidelines from a recent post read:

DO: Post personal, ORIGINAL, impactful stories. Please feel free to include a photo.
PLEASE DON’T: Post ANY UNORIGINAL CONTENT (articles, memes, links, videos, petitions, quotations, breaking news, links to other Facebook pages or groups, etc.), ... Please also do not edit your approved post to include fundraising links.
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And:

PLEASE DON'T: Offer your own Pantsuit Nation merchandise or solicit members for personal or political donations or calls to action. f you’d like to submit a proposal for a call to action or fundraising opportunity, please visit http://www.pantsuitnation.org/join-us.html. If you’d like to partner with us to sell a product that you have designed or made, please email partnerships@pantsuitnation.org.

Members who wanted more political organizing made independent subgroups designed to work together under the Pantsuit Nation moniker. Garra says Pantsuit Nation asked the subgroups to change their names to something unrelated to Pantsuit Nation if they wanted to be politically active. “So now, it is no longer Pantsuit Nation leading a movement that grew from their page,” Garra told me. “Now we have many splintered groups. Some working together, some not. This, in my opinion, was a failure to mobilize 4 million people that were looking for their voices, in opposition and advocacy, to be heard as one group.”

Chamberlain did not respond to my request for comment. I also asked her publisher for help in contacting her, but a publicist there directed me to her Facebook post.

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Beginning at the end of November, Chamberlain did begin posting weekly calls to action on a separate Pantsuit Nation blog. The suggested activities included direct service (donate a pantsuit to Dress for Success), vaguely political actions (buy an item on the Standing Rock activists’ Amazon wishlist), and nods to personal improvement (learn about mass incarceration from Ava DuVernay’s 13th). On the same day she made her book deal public, Chamberlain wrote that she had filed paperwork to turn Pantsuit Nation into a nonprofit with both 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) arms, funded in part by the book’s proceeds. The new organization will also support other organizations such as Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, Chamberlain says, through fundraising efforts and matching gifts made through Pantsuit Nation’s calls to action.

But “stories” seem to be the major focus of the group, even as it evolves. One man posted a story about how he stopped a fellow subway rider’s harassment of two women on the train. A white woman rejoiced at seeing innocent children of all skin colors celebrating at a holiday party. There are tales of woke children; white teachers asking Muslim kids and their parents to teach the class about their faith; and multiracial, -ethnic, and -religious groups of friends just getting along, because kindness matters more than difference.

To some, the emphasis on uplift and unity in these curated stories has seemed to come at the expense of either political action or harder conversations. In a Huffington Post piece published Tuesday, Pantsuit Nation member Harry Lewis called these stories “apolitical acts of self-humanizing” for white people. Former Pantsuit Nation member Leslie Mac, a black woman, says that, if a group member criticized a post through the lens of race, he or she would often be called “divisive” or “angry.” “The notion of being divisive has really been the biggest general reaction from white women within the Pantsuit Nation group,” Mac told me. “They ask why we are bringing these concerns that make them uncomfortable into this safe space for them. But what’s a safe space for them is not safe for us.”

After the election, Mac submitted a story of how she and fellow activist Marissa Jenae Johnson came up with the idea to start Safety Pin Box, a subscription service and political-action network for white people who want to be more effective allies, after the election. Group moderators turned down Mac’s post and several other submissions from women about Safety Pin Box. Pantsuit Nation moderators maintained that they didn’t post links to businesses. “The key is a focus on #storytelling,” the Pantsuit Nation Twitter account responded when someone asked why Safety Pin Box couldn’t get a shoutout.

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Now the same group that insisted on its purpose as a secluded storytelling community is, in a way, becoming a business of its own, and some members are chafing at the thought. “Overall I am disgusted by the idea of profiting off of others’ tragedies and hardships,” Myers said. “I think that the magic of the group is completely gone with this announcement. Any chances of a huge army are officially gone—all scattered off to other groups to post articles, or just to give up the fight altogether.”

What Chamberlain is doing is not necessarily unethical; soliciting contributions, even unpaid ones, for an edited book is common in the industry. If members of Pantsuit Nation want to see their stories represented in a book whose proceeds go to Chamberlain and the causes she decides to support, there’s nothing wrong with that arrangement. It’s the change-up of the group’s purpose that feels uncomfortable. A place some saw as a private space for connection or organizing has become a brand; the members are no longer just members, but a target market.

There’s one last issue about the book that no one I interviewed for this story brought up: A lot of the stories on the Pantsuit Nation page are a little too tidy in their tugs on the heartstrings. Will Chamberlain and her editors vet or fact-check the stories they print or publish them as is? I asked a Flatiron Books publicist if the stories would be verified. She did not respond to the question.

“My goals for this group remain the same,” Chamberlain wrote on Wednesday in her response to the book news backlash. “This is not the place for name calling. This is not the place for tearing each other down. This is not the place for divisiveness.” Instead of the kind of purpose-driven action that might require discussions that are difficult for some, this huge online community’s major legacy might be a collection of heartwarming tales that champion an uncritical, one-size-fits-all “feminism” that doesn’t threaten the status quo. “Four million voters, ready, and in one group, that wanted to work together to influence legislation, vet future leaders, and create positive change for all Americans,” Garra said, “would have been a true leader’s dream.”