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22nd of October 2018


How Pantsuit Nation founder Libby Chamberlain took on Trump

Libby Chamberlain is a quietly spoken young mother having her morning coffee on a picture-perfect café porch in rural Maine. She lives in a “tiny town” on the coast nearby. She isn’t moneyed. Few people in Washington have heard of her. She calls herself an “introvert activist”.

You wouldn’t imagine that she is in a position to trouble Donald Trump. And yet, she has rapidly become a new kind of political power broker, founder of what she believes is the US’s largest private Facebook group, Pantsuit Nation.

Three weeks before the last election, Chamberlain created an invite-only Hillary Clinton group for her circle of friends. Today, Pantsuit Nation has 3.7 million members, 86 per cent of them women or “gender-nonconforming”. It has evolved into an informal national support group for those who oppose Trump. The site specialises in personal stories from members that show how privilege works in the US — the privilege that comes from being white, or male, or heterosexual, or able-bodied or a citizen, etc.

Since November 2016, countless Pantsuit members have gone from apathy to daily Democratic activism. Dozens more are among the record number of US women running for office this year. The group has joined a network of progressive groups such as Indivisible and Sister District, which help lead what’s often called the #Resistance.

Now Pantsuit Nation is mobilising for the midterm Congressional elections on November 6. If the Democrats take one or just possibly both houses of Congress, it will be partly thanks to Chamberlain.

The morning after the third Clinton-Donald Trump debate in 2016, Chamberlain, then 33, decided she had enough of the vitriolic, “misogynistic” national political conversation. She had never been a political activist before but felt compelled to do something.

“I wanted to create a space where there wasn’t that automatic attack of any woman who supported Secretary Clinton by saying ‘She’s a sellout’ or ‘She’s a shill’ or ‘She’s inauthentic’. And create a space for women, in particular, to be excited about the moment and the fact that a woman was the nominee for a major party.”

Pantsuit Nation members at a rally in New York on election day in 2016 © Getty Images

At the time, Chamberlain was, in her own words, a “stay-at-home mom slash part-time school administrator”. Working in admissions and counselling at local high schools, she didn’t want to show up in a partisan T-shirt on election day. Instead she decided to vote wearing a pantsuit, Clinton’s emblematic campaigning outfit (she hastily bought one) and to urge women around her to do so too.

On October 20 2016, she created Pantsuit Nation and invited in “three dozen” friends. Other people could only join by invitation from a member. Within 24 hours, Pantsuit Nation had 24,000 members. By the end of election day, it had three million.

Chamberlain isn’t an entirely average American (she attended Yale) but she wasn’t connected to the Clinton campaign. The flood of members overwhelmed her. She enlisted nearly 200 online volunteers to help her run the Facebook group. On election day, photos poured in of women voting in pantsuits, believing they were electing the first female president.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during the third presidential debate, October 2016 © Bloomberg

“Then,” says Chamberlain, with understatement, “obviously it all changed.” Clinton, in her concession speech, urged those “who knocked on doors, talked to their neighbours, posted on Facebook — even in secret, private Facebook sites — I want everybody coming out from behind that and make sure your voices are heard going forward”.

I wanted to create a space to be excited about the fact that a woman was the nominee for a major party

Chamberlain recalls: “It was this moment of ‘Well, here are all these people from the margins of power who are now in danger.’ People who felt personally threatened by Donald Trump because of his bragging about sexual assault. The fears from immigrants, from people from the LGBT community, from people of colour. A lot of people felt: how could this happen? How could my neighbours or people in my community have voted this man who’s so against my values into office?”

Pantsuit Nation morphed into a place for sharing this anxiety and fear, but Chamberlain also wanted it to become a spur for action. “We were trying to connect people with meaningful things to do, as opposed to just yell and cry . . . to say: ‘OK, if you’re mad about this, here’s something you can do.’”

The day after the election, a retiree in Hawaii named Teresa Shook posted on Pantsuit Nation: “I think we should march.” One other member responded. Shook’s post grew into the Women’s March against Trump on January 21 2017, the largest one-day protest in US history.

In December 2016, Chamberlain decided to devote herself full time to Pantsuit Nation, initially without a salary. “In the beginning [I was] working 12 to 14 hours a day [on the site]. It was such an unexpected huge thing. There have been challenges in our family . . . I had to figure out how to make money so I could quit my jobs and pay people and pay for the lawyers and pay for the websites.”

Her gift is writing and editing, and in the first few weeks she posted daily messages to the group, trying to capture the state of collective feeling. Meanwhile, Pantsuit Nation started trying to raise funds.

The group didn’t want people posting tirades against Trump, cruel comments about his appearance, wonkish policy articles or links to opinion pieces making standard liberal arguments. Instead, Chamberlain hoped to get members telling their own stories, with the aim of encouraging others to engage with what she calls the “long, boring, hard work” of politics.

“People don’t show up to vote, they don’t show up to town halls . . . because they feel a duty to do that. They do it because they care about their own family, they care about someone, a story that they’ve heard,” she says. “When someone reads a story written from someone’s personal perspective saying, ‘This is what happened to me, this is real,’ that generates a much more productive conversation than doing this top down: ‘Everyone’s racist and white supremacy is horrible and here’s a prison-industrial complex.’”

The January 2017 Women’s March in Washington DC, the largest one-day protest in US history © Getty

I think we should march

Soon after the election, divides emerged on the site — mostly over racism. “There were all of the statistics about the majority of white women voting for Donald Trump,” Chamberlain recalls.

“A lot of white people in this country immediately after the election [were] waking up in a daze and saying: ‘How did this happen?’ And: ‘I guess racism isn’t dead.’ And all the people of colour in this country saying: ‘Yes, duh. Just because you have one black president doesn’t mean that racism is gone. This is what we’ve been saying and this is what we’ve been fighting.’ So that tension arose right away.”

Chamberlain also noticed some “white saviour stuff, where community members would say, ‘Look at this great thing that I did.’ People want credit for not being racist.”

She and others decided: “We need to step back and do some education around racial justice in this country . . . and how some of the deep-seated privilege of white people in this country who ignore racism has led to the rise of Donald Trump and the people that he supports.”

Chamberlain began drawing a salary in June 2017, when Pantsuit Nation got its first grant from New Media Ventures, a progressive investment fund that supports non-profits and start-ups. She’s now “chief content officer”. The only other full-time employee is executive director Cortney Tunis. About 550,000 members are active on the site on a typical day, but much of the daily posting — which drives user engagement — is still on Chamberlain’s shoulders: “I took yesterday off because it was my daughter’s birthday, so we probably had a low.”

From the “hundreds and sometimes thousands” of posts submitted by members each day, Chamberlain selects a handful to publish, often helping the authors rewrite them. Typically, she asks them to cut down political rants and develop the personal story.

Facebook has been much maligned for its role in letting Russians influence the 2016 election, yet it may be the ideal place for telling personal stories. Posts on Pantsuit Nation are private, and therefore only visible to group members (Chamberlain gave me access to the group so that I could report this article), but last year’s book Pantsuit Nation, which she edited, collects dozens of them.

Libby Chamberlain at her home in Brooklin, Maine, in August © Cig Harvey

There’s one from a woman whose grandmother died during the Great Depression of the 1930s after having an illegal abortion, leaving behind three young children. “I’m with her because I do not want to go back to the Dark Ages. I voted in her memory,” she wrote. There’s a mother whose autistic son depends on Medicaid; an anonymous, feminist soldier who won a Purple Heart.

There’s a photograph of a Florida woman beside her father, who is wearing a red dress: “At the age of 77, my father came out as transgender and I couldn’t be more proud.” There’s the Muslim doctor in hijab posing with her sons in an all-American pumpkin field. There’s the black woman married to a white man in small-town North Carolina, who, since “Trump happened” (“and I mean, he really happened”) depends on Pantsuit Nation “like a family”.

The stories bring to life the hard statistical realities of American privilege, such as the fact that black men are nearly three times as likely to be killed by police use of force as white men, according to a 2016 study; or that the “median usual weekly earnings” of full-time working women in the US last year were 81.8 per cent of men’s, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The daily education in American privilege has been an eye-opener for many straight white women on Pantsuit Nation — including Chamberlain herself. She says she has been forced to “dig into my own personal biases”. One thing she has learnt: “The biggest way white supremacy manifests itself is by not forcing white people to acknowledge how their lives have been easier because of their skin colour. When we do [acknowledge that], that can change the way that we move in the world. So an example of white supremacy that I have participated in is not worrying that I or my husband are going to be stopped at random by a police officer while driving.”

“Privilege” is a word that Republicans like to mock. That’s partly because Democrats in 2016 had relatively little to say about one particular form of it: growing up with wealth or education. A disabled, non-white, lesbian daughter of multimillionaire professionals has some crucial advantages over the son of white working-class parents. Clinton herself seemed to embody many forms of privilege — a point that Trump made effectively.

Pantsuit Nation focuses more on racial and gender than on financial privilege, although Chamberlain says the site tries to amplify voices from all “marginalised communities” — from religious minorities to “people from low income or less education”.

Still, lecturing people on their privilege sounds like a sure-fire way to alienate centrist swing voters. “A lot of people initially react to being called out for participating in the marginalisation of other people defensively,” she agrees. “I think that’s a very natural reaction. But if you’re able to absorb that defensiveness from behind a computer screen and sit with it a little bit and understand why you’re uncomfortable . . . and then return to the conversation.”

Mostly, she says, “what we see is people saying: ‘Wow, I just never thought of that. I never considered how this experience would be different for you than it is for me. No one has ever explained this to me like this before. Thank you, and I’m going to do better.’”

People don’t go and vote because they feel a duty to do so. They do it because they care about their family, they care about someone, a story that they’ve heard

She adds that most white women in the group are relatively quick to understand racial privilege because they already understand gender privilege: the idea that men have traditionally benefited from certain advantages in society. “Very few women, even staunchly Republican women, won’t disagree that there is some sexism in the world.”

A woman walks up to our table, and tells Chamberlain: “I couldn’t help but overhear. I just moved here from Costa Rica, and we heard about you in Costa Rica. What a great thing you’ve done.”

Understanding privilege is the theory behind Pantsuit Nation, but political action is the practice — though only action that works. Nobody gets points for anti-Trump virtue-signalling. For instance, phoning members of Congress to urge them to do something is often effective, says Chamberlain. Sending them postcards or signing petitions isn’t.

Members swap practical tips, such as trying to block Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court by phoning Maine’s Republican Senator Susan Collins: “Make sure her staff writes it down. Make the person read it back to you and ask for a follow-up call from Collins. She wasn’t getting her messages because her staff decided it was too much to write down!” (These attempts failed. Kavanaugh was sworn in this week.)

Pantsuit Nation’s main cause now is winning the midterms. That will mostly come down to persuading Democrats to vote, says Chamberlain. “There are more Democrats, or people who would vote Democrat, than there are people who vote Republican. But Democrats don’t turn out . . . so that’s what we’re working on.”

In the last midterms in 2014, only 36 per cent of eligible voters turned out — the lowest figure since 1942. Even in the 2016 presidential election, many Democrats were complacent. A woman from Oregon posted on the site afterwards: “I’m sorry I wasn’t making calls for Hillary to Ohio and Pennsylvania and Florida. I’m sorry I didn’t want to make waves with my male family members who voted for Trump but say they love me and love my girls. I’m sorry I didn’t take Trump seriously.”

President Trump has the potential to be a turnout machine for Democrats. In September, 67 per cent of registered Democratic supporters told pollsters from Pew Research Center that they were “more enthusiastic than usual about voting”, up from 36 per cent in 2014. The Republican figure of 59 per cent was also “historically quite high by midterm standards”, the data analyst Nate Silver recently tweeted. “It’s just that Democratic enthusiasm is totally off the charts.”

Many Pantsuit members have never been so politically active in their lives. How can they persuade others to vote? Chamberlain cites studies showing the effectiveness of requests from friends, perhaps through Facebook Messenger: “‘Hey, I know you know the election is on Tuesday. Just want to make sure you have everything you need. Are you going to vote?’ Then you write back and say: ‘Yes, Libby, I’m going to vote.’ Then we’re like: ‘Great. Now let’s each ask five more of our friends.’”

Female Trump supporters at a rally in Ohio in August © Bloomberg

Demographics are demographics . . . not many of the women who voted for Trump are going to switch parties

Does Chamberlain expect a flood of white women deserting the Republicans in November? “Demographics are demographics and looking at the way that majority white communities in our country voted, it’s not something that’s going to change in two years,” she says. “I don’t think it’s going to be that dramatic . . . not many of the women that voted for Trump are going to switch parties.”

Part of winning more of them over is to give women in red neighbourhoods the courage to come out as Democrat. Chamberlain says: “People will have their cars keyed if they have a [Democratic] bumper sticker, they’ll have lawn signs stolen, they’ll have vandalism.” If these Democrats remain in hiding, they can’t convert the neighbours.

There is currently a debate within the Democratic party about whether it needs to shift left. Chamberlain hopes it will remain a broad church. “Some areas of this country are ready for much more progressive candidates,” she says. “You look at what happened in New York with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who, in her primary, defeated an incumbent Congressperson because she ran a much more explicitly progressive platform. That success can’t be replicated in rural Illinois or in North Carolina . . . we need to be strategic. Having the most lefty socialist isn’t always going to work.”

Before long, Democrats will need to make a crucial choice that will redefine their party’s identity: who will be their presidential candidate for 2020? Months after Clinton’s defeat, I interviewed Joan C Williams, the feminist author of the book White Working Class, who said: “I care too much about women to support a white woman for president. A white man is the safe bet . . . When men feel threatened, the backlash against strong, assertive women gains strength.”

Chamberlain disagrees. She wants to see another female candidate. To anyone who thinks a woman cannot beat Trump, she says: “I think they are underestimating the rage and motivation of millions of women.”

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