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Pantsuit Nation’s Tattered Ambition

The viral Facebook group turned book is a potent reminder of what complacency costs

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

A few weeks before last November’s presidential election, a 33-year-old woman from coastal Maine named Libby Chamberlain created a private Facebook group for her friends called Pantsuit Nation. The semicloistered rah-rah space with the snappy name quickly went viral, amassing millions of members and a seemingly endless cascade of jubilant posts explaining why members of the group were “with her.” On Election Day, Clinton supporters deluged the page with photos of themselves grinning triumphantly in businesswear. By that night, the tenor of the posts had turned from celebratory to mournful.

After President Trump’s victory, it seemed like maybe Pantsuit Nation would become the digital equivalent of the Javits Center, a site of defeat and dashed dreams best forgotten. Instead of vacating the group, however, members kept posting and pledging to resist. Seven months later, Pantsuit Nation remains around 3.9 million members strong, with nonprofit status and dozens of local offshoots. Despite its staying power, Pantsuit Nation has been plagued with infighting and controversy. In December, Chamberlain announced that she had signed a book deal. She pitched it within the Facebook group as a collective triumph. “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,” she wrote.

Backlash arrived quickly. Chamberlain announced the deal by attempting to frame it as a win for the community, and some members of the group agreed it would raise visibility. Others, however, questioned the decision to monetize a collection of Facebook posts shared freely within a digitally gated space. “You’ve done this backwards. You don’t create a secret group and then announce that you’re going to publish what was posted. I would compare that to an alcoholic newspaper reporter, who, after attending AA meetings for a couple of months, announcing one night to the group that he’s going to write about and publish the many stories he’s heard,” one member wrote on Facebook. What’s more, members grew increasingly unhappy about the content of some posts and comments. Some worried that white members were talking over marginalized voices, and that the group’s rules (posts were meant to be limited to first-person stories) meant that it was devolving into a back-patting session in which stories about do-gooder behavior from white, cisgender people became the primary mode of storytelling, rather than the community functioning as a forum for activism and reflection.

Chamberlain attempted to assuage critics by using content in the book from only people who wanted to participate and offering compensation, but the project’s larger purpose was also scrutinized. “Pantsuit quickly became nothing more than a virtual venue for personal stories, used-clothing donations, and swag,” Karin Klein wrote for the Los Angeles Times, lamenting about how Chamberlain had squandered the potential activist forum by turning it into a “feel-good commodity.”

Pantsuit Nation was released this past May to little acclaim. It is a handsome and confounding document. The book is arranged chronologically, and it’s a mix of short essays and blurbs about why the 250 contributors decided to vote for Clinton. Most snippets are paired with photographs of trailblazing grandparents, adorable children, stalwart women, and interracial families. Less than halfway through Pantsuit Nation, the election happens. The entries shift from wild optimism to slightly melancholy optimism. Protest signs and slogans recur frequently starting with the entries after November 8.

The stories in Pantsuit Nation are heartstring-tugging anecdotes, mostly about identity. “Happy Thanksgiving to you all from our American Muslim family,” one blurb reads, accompanied by a picture of a smiling family behind a delicious-looking turkey. Next to this page is another Thanksgiving tableau. “I’m a Latina atheist,” its story begins, showing the Latina atheist gathered for dinner with her Muslim Nigerian and American friends. Late in the book, there’s a two-page spread. “A reminder from our daughter that not every chapter has been written,” the first page declares in large font. The second page is a photograph of a cute girl in a “Future Is Female” T-shirt. Taken separately, the pages are simply pleasant blurbs about nice people. Taken together, however, they feel like a brochure.

Pantsuit Nation is reminiscent of another collection of feel-good, people-on-the-street stories — Humans of New York — which also began as a digital project and was later translated into a hardcover. “Any ambiguity or intrigue to be found in a HONY photo is chased out into the open, and, ultimately, annihilated by Stanton’s captions, and by the satisfaction that he seems to want his followers to feel,” Vinson Cunningham wrote for The New Yorker. Unlike HONY, and to Pantsuit Nation’s credit, the stories there were written by their subjects, and that varied and sincere authorship lends the book a pervasive sweetness. (I suspect it is what Chamberlain meant when she described it as snuggly.) However, the book suffers from the same flattened-out, sapped affect of HONY, where photos and captions are vehicles for quick and shallow satisfaction. Pantsuit Nation diminishes the power of its congregants’ occasionally treacly but always sincere stories by carefully pruning and teasing the most eloquent and photogenic text and images into a stylized narrative. It turns them into a neat package to behold as a comfort, rather than something to understand or to galvanize.

A coffee-table book has never made me want to take political action. (Neither has a Facebook group, for that matter.) As I’ve read and reread Pantsuit Nation, I’ve asked myself why this attractive book of people pledging their love for Hillary Clinton disappoints me so, when the possibility of it being good was always so slim. And I realize it’s because there is no better artifact to explain Clinton’s loss than this book: It is self-congratulatory and myopic and it searches for catharsis in bromides. This book ends with a manifesto, yet somehow suggests that the best course of political action is telling the room a little bit about yourself.

Pantsuit Nation is too glossy and cheerful to represent the tattered state of the Democratic Party. “Stories spark change,” the Pantsuit Nation manifesto begins. And yes, first-person stories can inspire and otherwise prompt listeners into action and reflection. But the stories in Pantsuit Nation are bundled together and framed in a way that leeches them of power rather than amplifying their force. The narrative presented by this book is that, despite the unexpected failure of the candidate its subjects preferred, despite the triumph of a candidate whose policies, behavior, and words were anathema to their values, everything will probably be OK as long as one keeps … taking photos of attractive multicultural families and posting them to Pantsuit Nation?

The book does not probe the reasons Clinton lost at all. It is not reflective, it does not offer any wisdom or suggestions for a way forward beyond clichés. Pantsuit Nation exists to reassure. It’s a pretty comfort object for gobsmacked Clintonistas. This isn’t a salvo, it’s Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hillary Clinton Edition.

Of course, the Chicken Soup for the Soul series is incredibly popular because being reassured is a nice feeling. Pantsuit Nation is a nice, reassuring book. But it is not a powerful one.