The Founder of Pantsuit Nation Talks Making "Mistakes" and Meeting Hillary Clinton
Libby Chamberlain modestly describes Pantsuit Nation, the immensely popular pro-Hillary Clinton Facebook group she created during the 2016 election, as an idea she had that simply "caught fire." But the group's postelection staying power is a testament to something much bigger than a whim that magically took off; it's living proof of Chamberlain's tenacity and ability to adapt.
When we caught up with Chamberlain on the phone just a few days ahead of Pantsuit Nation's one-year anniversary, she took a step back and reflected on the beginning of her almost unbelievable journey. When the invitation-only group was in its earliest days, Chamberlain was still working part-time and raising two kids in rural Maine. She said that in her "wildest dreams," she hoped that maybe Pantsuit Nation would generate enough enthusiasm to encourage a few hundred people to wear pantsuits to the polls. Instead, Chamberlain unexpectedly became the founder of what is perhaps one of the country's most recognizable political organizations.
While the original secret Facebook group Chamberlain launched is still 3.8 million members strong, Pantsuit Nation has now expanded its efforts to include the promotion of offline civic engagement. It's officially registered as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization with an associated charitable foundation called the Pantsuit Nation Foundation. There's also a podcast called This Pod Is Your Pod (which Chamberlain cohosts with Pantsuit Nation's Executive Director, Cortney Tunis) and a self-titled book that's available for purchase, though the latter created quite a backlash, which Chamberlain then had to deal with.
Throughout our conversation, Chamberlain addressed much of the criticism that's been leveled at her and her organization with an impressive amount of grace. She spoke candidly about the power of taking risks and the mistakes she made during the early days of Pantsuit Nation. She also opened up about the surreal feeling of getting to meet face to face with the woman whose candidacy sent her on such a remarkable journey. Note: The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length.
On the Chaotic Beginning of Pantsuit Nation
There were many months of Pantsuit Nation when I really didn't have any balance. It was completely consuming for me for probably seven or eight months from when I first started it. Every waking moment was either, like, physically taking care of my children (I was still nursing my son when Pantsuit Nation first started) or on Pantsuit Nation or sleeping. There was no time for anything else, because it was 24/7.
Every single morning I would wake up and there would be some sort of conflagration in the group that we were working to manage and sort through or talk through. Now that things have passed a little bit more, we have a more organizational structure underlaying the group that allows us to delegate and figure out who's covering things, and we're much more experienced and confident in the work that we're doing. I am able to step away for more than a couple of minutes at a time [laughs] and feel good that, you know, things will still happen that need attention, but it's not quite as time-intensive as it was in the beginning.
On Pantsuit Nation's Early Mistakes
I took on my first [Facebook group administrators] and moderators in that first weekend when we went over 25,000 people. [They weren't] people that I knew, it was just people that reached out and had been in other Facebook groups and would look and see that I was the only administrator and be like, "Do you need help?" I had a few people right in the beginning that reached out to me, and I just trusted them and said, "Yes, I do actually really need help." And they turned out to be wonderful women that were incredibly supportive and truly superimportant, especially in those first few weeks.
[For] anyone that volunteered, we'd have a very brief training, and we would update constantly trying to keep pace with everything that was happening in the group. That led to some challenges in the beginning, because, like I said, at one point we had over 100 moderators, most of whom I didn't even know who they were because we had to bring people on so quickly. And the training was really quick and not as comprehensive. So there were some mistakes in the beginning, especially in November and December, where because it's not like most organizations where we scaled up in a somewhat predictable way. All of the sudden [Pantsuit Nation] had four million people almost and no internal mechanisms to even communicate with the people that were trying to manage this. So some of the work we've been doing since December is to go back and build that infrastructure underneath the work of the group.
"What we're trying to do at Pantsuit Nation is to make the political process — politics itself — feel intimately personal to everyone."
So, yeah, we definitely made some mistakes. I made some mistakes. We made some mistakes as an organization back in November and December, because we didn't have a lot of accountability within our moderation team. And things just happened quite quickly, but I think we're much better at responding to things now.
On the Power of Storytelling to Spark Political Change
One of the essential premises of Pantsuit Nation, and I think something that makes us different than some of the other political groups or nonprofits that are working in the space, is that we really hold the idea of storytelling as an agent of change very, very close to our mission and to our values as an organization. Sometimes, that leads to people being like, "Oh, you just tell nice stories, and you're not actually doing anything." I really don't think that's true. I'm only the latest in thousands of people (in thousands of years of people) asserting that stories are a fundamental cornerstone of activism, and that people's personal reflections of their lived experience are what drive people to take action.
Within Pantsuit Nation, when you have those personal narratives tied up in the moment, contextualized within what's happening to our country right now, [posted in] such a large community that has the capacity to create change, stories can then become even more powerful. It's that combination of the old, fundamental art of storytelling within this new digital moment where they can then be seen and shared by millions of people.
And again, sometimes people are really quick to dismiss stories as a pat on the back, but when you look at activist movements throughout history, you see that often they're underscored by personal stories and narratives, and people using their voices to talk about injustice, then to move people to act. So that's been the really important piece of what I've internalized as something important in this moment: to listen to other people's stories and to amplify other people's stories and make sure they're being seen by as many people as possible. Because I really do think that's an essential element in creating change.
And maybe more [than conservatives], progressives have tended to maybe focus more on data and statistics and white papers and policy and this really high level of politics in terms of looking down at individual experience in a sort of generalized way. I think that has meant that for a lot of people, politics doesn't feel personal. So what we're trying to do at Pantsuit Nation is to make the political process — politics itself — feel intimately personal to everyone. And so then everyone has to act, because it's as important as anything else in your life.
Advice For Other Women Looking to Get Into the Political Arena
Go for it. One of the things that I feel really strongly about in this moment in particular is that women need to be stepping up. We know statistically that [86%] of calls made to Congress are made by women. Women are the ones that are acting and, yet, kind of on an organizational level, it feels like a lot of the people who are at the head of different activist movements tend to be men.
So the person that started the Women's March (or had the initial post about the Women's March) was a retired woman in Hawaii who just said, "I have this idea, let's do it." And that's what caught fire. And here I am in rural Maine, and I just had this idea and it caught fire. If you're able to, lean into it and get your voice out there and have an idea and wade into the discomfort. [Because] I think we need more women that aren't coming from a political campaign background to be stepping up, because there's a lot of new voices and ideas that need to come into this space in order for it to feel inclusive and representative of everyone.
On Finally Meeting Hillary Clinton During an Episode of This Pod Is Your Pod
It was incredible. Well, I think about her just about every day [laughs]. The work we do with Pantsuit Nation really is in a lot of ways a way to carry on her legacy and all the things that she's fought for throughout her career; all the things her campaign stood for, for women and people from marginalized communities.
"And what a gift for someone of her stature to be able to instill that kind of spark in the people she meets."
So in some ways, she is this pretty major presence in my life. So then to finally meet her face to face for the first time was really incredibly moving for me personally. I just felt the backing of this community that I created and made space for — unwittingly at first, but that I've devoted my life to at this point.
One of the things that I was so happy to feel was her energy and her hope despite everything that's happened recently in her life. I think that most of us in her position could be so defeated and frustrated to the point of being bitter or angry or any of that. And she really remains an incredibly positive, funny, charming, and brilliant presence. I left the meeting feeling like, Yeah, I can do it. And what a gift for someone of her stature to be able to instill that kind of spark in the people she meets.