An invite-only, incredibly popular Facebook group of Hillary Clinton supporters called Pantsuit Nation is being turned into a book, the perfect bullshit faux feminist capstone on a bullshit year characterized by the failure of popular feminism.
Pantsuit Nation was founded less than a month before Election Day 2016, which makes it about as much a feminist institution as the leftovers in my fridge. But it got popular quickly; by Nov. 8, when I was buying the dozen eggs that I still haven’t eaten, membership swelled to more than 3 million members. In the days after Donald Trump’s surprise victory over Clinton, I ordered some chicken lo mein that sits in a cardboard container I’m now afraid to open, and a million or so more people joined. Today, my fridge needs a cleaning. And the group has a book deal.
Well, to be clearer: The members of the group don’t have a book deal; that deal actually belongs to the group’s founder, 33-year-old Libby Chamberlain of Maine. The material in the book, ostensibly, will be material written by other women, according to The New York Times, presented in an unsorted style, echoing the disorganization and serendipity of a Facebook newsfeed. Chamberlain will act as a “curator.” After she penned a soft-focus post congratulating the 4 million members of the group for getting her a book deal, there was a low-level riot among the commenters, many of whom balked at the fact that material they posted in a private Facebook group might be used in a book without their permission.
Hours later, Chamberlain clarified that she’d seek permission before using individuals’ posts in the book. Members were encouraged to check their “other” messages folder, just in case Chamberlain wanted to use their words in the book she just sold without asking them.
There’s also the irksome nature of the group itself. Regardless of its flowery original intent—“empowerment,” or something—what it’s devolved into is a space for white people to pat each other on the head for acting in a manner most woke. Some women of color in the group have noted their discomfort with this, only to be ignored or shouted down for interfering with the humming positivity machine.
But their discomfort bears out. For every inspiring story of a girl who faced down bullies at school, there’s a self-congratulatory post by a white person who, let’s say, helped their neighbors, who are Muslims, shovel their driveway. For every voice-amplifying anecdote from a person who overcame disability or sickness to support Hillary Clinton and how they will continue to fight, there’s a woman bragging about, say, decorating for the holidays with a black Santa ornament. Mixed in with sincere attempts to share and connect are an eye-rolling number of anecdotes of sexist bogeymen and suspiciously cutting comebackery that sound like the liberal version of the Marine Todd meme. Lots of safety pin avatars, if you catch my drift. In Pantsuit Nation, no good deed goes unselfied.
In the weeks since the election, it seems like everybody’s been tearing their hair out over Why Hillary Lost. It’s a complicated question that it seems irresistible to those who wish to answer it in the most glib way possible. Hillary lost because of Comey. She lost because of Russia. Sexism did it. No, it was actually Bernie Sanders. She lost because of out-of-touch latte-drinking liberals, somehow.
While we don’t know why she lost, somehow the Pantsuit Nation book deal encompasses several things that went wrong during the 2016 campaign:
The first and most obvious echo between Pantsuit Nation: The Empowering(™) Book and the Hillary campaign is the notion that messages you believe are exchanged privately online may actually go public one day. With Clinton, it was those damn emails; with PN, it’s stories shared in confidence, under the disillusionment of so-called community.
Second, Facebook can barely help us draw a line between real and fake. Perhaps the social networking giant should not be trusted with our deepest, darkest secrets. A “private” group with a membership larger than the population of many U.S. states is hardly private at all.
Third, people will lie to amass power, then screw you over once they have it. Because of that, it’s important that people be careful about who to trust and what they share. Just take a look at how Trump coasted to victory thanks to the trusting votes of white women, the same women who are now almost completely shut out of his administration.
Fourth, feeling good about yourself isn’t the same as winning, and it isn’t the same as real power. A Dove commercial that doesn’t airbrush stretch marks doesn’t mean shit if women in Texas can’t get Plan B, if single mothers in Ohio can’t take time off to take care of their sick children without losing pay. A Facebook group all about privileged feel-goodery is actually bad if what it does is obscure what the new administration is already doing. People privileged enough to take real action against Donald Trump don’t need to be high-fived right now. They’re the ones who screwed up.
Pantsuit Nation’s founder claims she’ll use some of the money she makes on the project to start a foundation that elevates and empowers women. But her resume—until fairly recently, she was working part-time in a school administrator’s office—hardly lends itself to successfully helming a massive effort such as the one she only started in October. Organizations that do this and do it better already exist, and have existed for decades. Why reinvent the wheel when time is one luxury we don’t have? And it seems the primary audience for the group, and for the book, are people who belong to groups that are already plenty empowered, both socially and economically.
There’s certainly value in sharing uplifting stories, in normalizing welcoming and prosocial behaviors, and in working to cheer up the dejected. But, despite the season, now isn’t the time to turn from Clinton’s mistakes to Chicken Soup for the Soul; it’s the time for some serious come-to-Jesus reflection. While we’re paging through our inspiring coffee table book, they’ll roll back decades of activism. We can fight on their terms, or lose on ours.