Op-Ed

Pantsuit Nation had the potential to mobilize millions. Instead, it's just a feel-good commodity

Imagine what 4 million impassioned Hillary Clinton followers, acting in concert, could accomplish over the next four years. Targeted boycotts — 4 million people have a lot of buying power, and many of them represent households. More millions. Think of 4 million postcards showering down on the offices of legislators who propose to gut Medicare or create registries to track Muslims.

That was what I thought I was getting into when a friend invited me to join the secret Facebook group Pantsuit Nation. I imagined we were mobilizing for the political fight of our lives.

But the movement never happened.

Instead, there were stories. At first, eye-opening, gut-wrenching tales of the abuse and discrimination that people had suffered for being dark-skinned or female — most of the members are women — or “different” in some way. Then the wind shifted direction, and the group was flooded with heroic tales in which Pantsuit members, generally white, encountered someone involved in an outrageous act of hatred, usually against a person of color, and were the only ones in the store, the park, the workplace, wherever, to do anything about it.

There also was action, of sorts: a suggestion from the group’s founder, Libby Chamberlain, to donate used business clothes so that homeless people could apply for jobs. There were sales of mugs and sweatshirts with the Pantsuit logo. Pantsuit quickly became nothing more than a virtual venue for personal stories, used-clothing donations and swag.

I could just imagine Donald Trump laughing into his climate-wrecking blueprint.

I still held out hope that the group would turn around — until last Monday, when Chamberlain announced, out of nowhere, that she had filed for nonprofit status and that she was “beyond excited” because she had signed a deal with Flatiron Press to reprint the stories that people had posted in the group, if only they would give their permission.

She was light on specifics. What were the terms of the contract, and who would get the money? Unclear, except that it would feed the nonprofit. But who would be paid by the organization? Chamberlain and her pals, is what most people guessed. One of the few details Chamberlain offered: The book would be “snuggle-in-bed-able.” Blergh.

Suddenly, thousands of members woke up as if from a reverie. Contract talks must have been going on for weeks, they surmised. And yet Chamberlain had told no one as she turned a site with so much potential into a feel-good commodity.

“Let’s just be perfectly clear,” one member wrote, “pantsuit nation hasn’t done anything useful. No calls to action. No real change. Nothing political, despite having an enthusiastic audience of 4 million people.” 

“All they’ve done is carefully curate which posts they’ve allowed through, and tone police,” wrote another. “They’ve been really careful to make it a safe space for white people, often at the expense of the voices of POC.”

Some even went so far as to compare Chamberlain to Trump. 

“Becoming a sell out to the highest bidder. Choosing material gain over what is morally right. Now who does that remind us of eh?.....oh ja, Trump!”

“Libby must have read Art of the Deal and thought, why not? Karma is every$hing.”

It’s Chamberlain’s monkey, Chamberlain’s zoo. She can do what she wishes with her group. But her biggest misstep wasn’t the book deal. It’s the fact that she squandered what potential political force the group might have had by avoiding the hard work of political action, and ignoring members’ complaints. (Chamberlain, fittingly, did not respond to a request for comment.)

LGBT pantsuit members continue to announce weddings that were moved up to avoid the new restrictions they fear will happen under President-elect Trump. A teacher recently offered a self-congratulatory tidbit about how she invited a Muslim mom to tell the class about Eid. A mom bragged that her daughter overcame her ballet-performance jitters by thinking about Hillary.  In the responses below each posting were the familiar cooing comments. “You go girl!” “We’ve got your back!” That, and donated clothes, and swag.

Pantsuit Nation was never a movement. It was an online kaffeeklatsch. I suppose it will always be just that.

Karin Klein writes for The Times editorial board.

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