The stories posted in Pantsuit Nation are testaments, fleeting snapshots, exhortations, rallying cries, eulogies, and community bulletins. These stories pierce through the noise of social media and sound an internal alarm bell for each of our 3.9 million members: Wake up. Listen. Connect. Speak out. March. Call. Donate. Write. Defend. Protect. Witness. Learn. Push yourself. Engage. Act.
Since this group started five months ago, these stories have come flying across our screens – on the subway or in the school parking lot or on sleepless nights – transporting us momentarily into lives not our own. Giving us strength or enraging us. Making us smile or slam down our fists. Pushing us into discomfort or welcoming us into solace. There for an instant. Then gone into the Facebook ether. A few of these stories have gone on to be featured in publications from The Huffington Post to the New York Times to Upworthy, but the vast majority are nearly impossible to access once they are buried given the volume and activity level of the group. They are also never seen by anyone who is not a member or who doesn’t have a Facebook account.
The idea for a book that would be a permanent collection of some of the stories shared in Pantsuit Nation came up as early as October, when we still numbered fewer than 250,000 members. I was spending nearly every waking moment of my free time moderating the group, reading posts and responding to member questions and concerns, blocking abusive trolls, and training a team of volunteer moderators and admins, a team that would grow to include over 170 people by Election Day. As the group size swelled and we began to see hundreds and then thousands of posts coming in every day (on Election Day alone, Pantsuit Nation members submitted over 120,000 posts to the group), I often found myself scrolling back to try to find a post I had loved and wanted to return to, only to be stymied by the sheer number of other posts and technical glitches within Facebook.
There was something so beautiful and ephemeral about the posts – the way they captured those days leading up to and immediately after the election. They painted a portrait of that moment in time that felt so much more real, more human and raw, than what we were seeing in the news. I didn’t want to lose that, and the hundreds of messages and comments from members who requested or suggested that some of the posts be collected in a book indicated that I wasn’t the only one who felt like I was trying to catch lightning in a bottle.
In early November I also began to hear from Pantsuit Nation members who were literary agents, editors, publishers, or published authors themselves who were suggesting or expressing interest in putting together a book based on the stories in the group. At that point I was still so overwhelmed with the unexpected growth of Pantsuit Nation and the day-to-day management of the group (and, as always, with being a mom to two young children) that I didn’t respond to most of these inquiries other than to say we were focused on getting out the vote for Hillary. And then, on November 9, when the world seemed shattered (but that highest glass ceiling remained obstinately, infuriatingly intact), I heard Secretary Clinton’s concession speech: “To the millions of volunteers, community leaders, activists and union organizers who knocked on doors, talked to their neighbors, 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 decided a few things in those (gutting) few days after the election, and as we have seen in this group and beyond, I wasn’t alone. I committed myself to continuing the work of the Pantsuit Nation Facebook group as long as possible. Like many others, I decided to reorient my life to focus much more directly on dismantling the systems of oppression and white/male/hetero/cis/able supremacy that allowed Donald Trump to become president. And I let Hillary’s message sink in: make sure your voices are heard going forward.
There are a lot of ways to create change — as we have seen time and again through the stories of our members, some who have been politically active since long before the election, some who are newly inspired to activism by recent events. You can run for office. You can donate money to impactful organizations or campaigns that align with your values. You can #grabyourwallet and boycott brands or companies that don’t align with your values. You can march. You can volunteer in your community. You can make a meal for someone. You can show up to a town hall or make a phone call or write a postcard. You can offer a bed or a warm coat or a clean shower. You can donate your expertise. You can make art. You can educate. You can vote. (Please vote.) What Pantsuit Nation has proven to us, and what Hillary and others have echoed, is that stories have an essential role in this constellation of actions. The explosive growth of the group and the stamina it has shown over the past five months to stay relevant and maintain momentum are further evidence that stories aren’t just pleasant distractions on the sidelines of the fight for justice. They are at the heart of it.
The decision to collaborate on a book with members of Pantsuit Nation wasn’t a hard one. In retrospect it feels almost predetermined, because the suggestion came up so often and because it felt like such a natural and needed extension of the group. It also aligned nearly perfectly with Pantsuit Nation’s (newly minted) mission to amplify historically underrepresented and excluded voices through the power of collective storytelling. While our Facebook group remains the cornerstone, Pantsuit Nation has the potential to move beyond that platform and reach so many more people. The book is one important piece of that effort, though not the only one.
I didn’t write a book proposal for Pantsuit Nation. I was fortunate to be able to rely on the advice of a good friend with deep experience in the publishing world, and she helped me navigate some of the inquiries from literary agents and publishers that had accelerated in the days after the election. I met with one agency and representatives from two publishing houses, all of whom were already members of the group. In late November, Flatiron Books acquired the rights to publish a book, edited and with an introduction by me, based on our Facebook group.
In December, I began to think about what that book might look like and to do some research within the group about what kind of stories it might include. Although I still couldn’t get back to some of the early posts that I had loved (I still wish there was a way to find them!), I did manage to bookmark many from the days just before the election by scrolling back through photos and posts. In late December I began to contact members of the group to see if they would be interested in having their story considered for inclusion in a book. I reached out to over 700 members via Facebook, and provided those who responded with further information about the book via email and invited them to submit their post for consideration via a secure form outside of Facebook. There were also over 400 Pantsuit Nation members who emailed me directly to offer their posts for consideration for the book, and I contacted an additional 100 (or so) photographers whose photos had appeared alongside the written posts of Pantsuit Nation members. Every person who was interested in having their post considered for inclusion in the book submitted their material via a secure website and granted me and Flatiron Books a “nonexclusive right to use” their words and/or images, meaning that the contributors retain copyright over their work and can choose to publish it elsewhere.
In my communication with potential contributors, I clarified how they would be credited in the book if they wished or how their privacy would be protected if they wanted to contribute but remain anonymous. I offered compensation for contributors whose work was selected for publication and who chose to be compensated. Over 700 individuals – writers and photographers – gave permission for their posts to be considered for the book. Of these, over 250 are included in the finished book, and it has been an incredible pleasure working with and getting to know these contributors over the past 3+ months. They are courageous, passionate, inspiring people who firmly believe in the power of a story to ignite action.
The book also represents the first potential source of revenue for Pantsuit Nation. I’ve written about this at length in another post, but Pantsuit Nation has been managed by a group of volunteers for the past five months, and while we have benefitted tremendously from the work of so many tireless volunteers – graphic designers and lawyers and nonprofit finance mentors and others who have offered their expertise, in addition to our amazing group of moderators and admins – an entirely volunteer-run organization is neither sustainable nor likely to have the kind of impact we hope and trust Pantsuit Nation can have. We plan to build our non-profit organization into a powerful tool for progressive change with a lean budget, and the money allocated to Pantsuit Nation from sales of the book (roughly 10% of the suggested retail price of the hardcover edition, less the cost of compensating the contributors and other costs associated with creating the book) will be one important source of revenue for us this year. In addition to revenue from the book, we will also need to raise money from donations and grants to meet our goals, which include building a dynamic staff to guide this organization, developing strategic partnerships with other organizations with aligned missions, and creating a public archive of stories on our website for use by educators, advocates, activists, and anyone who wants to link storytelling with calls to action.
A Facebook group that was started on a whim by a woman in rural Maine who wanted to gather some friends to wear pantsuits to the polls, and which then exploded to a 3.9-million-person community, is anything but conventional. The path has not been straight, but we’re still here and we’re still together. I believe fiercely in what you’re doing, Pantsuit Nation. I believe that your stories matter, that your voices are crucial. I am proud of this book and I am proud of this group. It is an incredible privilege and honor to be a part of this huge, diverse, complex, multifaceted community, united as we are by our belief in the power of collective storytelling and a commitment to justice and inclusion. I can't wait to take this next step as we continue to move – confidently and with the urgency necessary to meet the terrifying administration that confronts us – out from behind a “secret private Facebook site.” Onward!
Sample pages from the book!