It was late October 2016 when invitations to a “secret” group called Pantsuit Nation started lighting up the Facebook feeds of women around the country. Within weeks, millions of women and men had joined the group, in support of the first woman on track to become president: Hillary Rodham Clinton. I joined, read with joy the stories of so many like-minded folks, and even shed tears as photo after photo popped up showing people paying homage to womens’ rights pioneer Susan B. Anthony—and Hillary—by leaving their “I voted” stickers on the suffragette’s gravestone in the days leading up to and on Nov. 8, 2016.
Then came Nov. 9, and heartbroken, I turned to Pantsuit Nation for solace. So did Jessica Cannon and Megan Mullins, two Wilmington, NC., women whom I’d yet to meet but whom would become women I deeply respect and admire, and gladly call friend.
At that time, Cannon and Mullins didn’t know each other either. But days after Clinton’s devastating loss for the presidency, Cannon decided to start a local Facebook group of Pantsuit Nation. Mullins got an invite to join from one of her friends, and she did. Cannon and Mullins also decided, independently, to go to the Democratic Women’s meeting, scheduled that Thursday, just two days after the election.
“I felt confident that Trump would not be elected President going into the election,” says Mullins. “My husband and I had a nice celebratory dinner Tuesday evening. I fell asleep early anticipating that I’d wake up to good news.” But sometime around 11 p.m., Mullins awoke to her husband’s realization that the election was not going the way most everyone had expected.
“The next day was a fog. I kept asking my son, who was 18 months old at the time, what we were going to do. He had no suggestions, so it was up to me to look up the New Hanover County Democratic Party’s website and meeting schedule.”
It was there that Cannon spotted Mullins, hoping to go unnoticed and hiding under a ball cap, and decided to say hello. The two women hit it off immediately. Both are go-getters, mothers of boys, and sharp-witted. Both were equally sad and mad about the election. And neither could no longer sit down and stay quiet.
They teamed up to cultivate the local Pantsuit group. A meeting was announced, and 40-50 people crammed into the eating area of Tidal Creek Co-op, an organic and natural food market that has served the Cape Fear region for years. Today, the group is called Suit Up Wilmington and has nearly 3,500 members. We agreed as a group to become our own entity rather than a local chapter of Pantsuit Nation—although we still support the national group and many of us remain members—in order to drive our own agenda that more closely matches the members’ wishes.
The group meets Sundays to organize. Among the many things the group has done so far, Suit Up Wilmington organized two buses that took nearly 100 people to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 21. It was instrumental in bringing newcomers (myself included) to join as delegates in New Hanover County’s local Democratic precincts. It’s held events to write postcards to legislators and the White House, held a mock town hall meeting with Rep. David Rouzer, and then rallied people to attend the town hall meeting Rouzer finally held a few weeks later. Through the group’s Facebook page, the group alerts us of pending legislative actions at the local, state and national levels, gives us the details we need to make calls and write letters to our legislators, and keeps up our spirits when the fight seems overwhelming.
Many of the members are new to activism, but many aren’t. And they don’t just work within Suit Up Wilmington, or any one organization, for that matter. One of Suit Up Wilmington’s key goals is to serve as an online coordinating tool, so many of the members are active in other groups and also often embark on their own activist efforts. Also, Suit Up Wilmington seeks the guidance and wisdom of a variety of activist and non-profit groups, local and state politicians, and coordinates with local and state political parties. The group also relies on the Indivisible Guide, a freely available guide for resisting the Trump agenda created by former congressional staffers. Indivisible is now a nationwide movement that includes local chapters around the country.
Through all of this, Suit Up Wilmington really has become a force of grassroots activism, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Neither do Cannon or Mullins. They’re both early risers, and are apt to message each other in the wee hours of the morning to plan out Suit Up Wilmington’s agenda. They put in hours daily to oversee the Facebook site, network, and follow legislative activity at the local, state and national levels.
“The results of the presidential election in November woke a lot of people up,” says Cannon. “Our state and federal political machines are out of balance. Regular folks have almost no say in how our government operates anymore. That needs to change.”
Mullins says she’s still processing much of the fallout from the election, including how to maintain healthy relationships with family and friends who voted for this person. I’ve disagreed with plenty of people politically in the past, but this election was just so different,” she says. Suit Up Wilmington has given her a positive outlet to harness her dissatisfaction into what is hopefully productive action on a local and state level. “We’re just a little Engine That Could. I hope we’re able to help flip New Hanover County and North Carolina blue in 2018,” she says.
As for Pantsuit Nation, it continues to be a force as well. Within 24 hours of its forming back in October 2016, 24,000 had joined the closed group. Within a few weeks, it had grown t more than 3 million. Today, Pantsuit Nation has a public Facebook page, a Twitter account, and a website. Committed to being a platform for people to share their stories, the group is partners with established and growing organizations, and advocates for progressive change.
On its website, www.pantsuitnation.org., the group says it’s center is “the belief that change—even global, political, tectonic change—comes, first, from the heart.” It’s focus is to shine a spotlight on issues from “immigration reform to the rights of people with disabilities, from racial justice to religious freedom, from protecting access to healthcare to the fight for full and unfettered equality for the LGBTQIA community. We are a bullhorn for marginalized voices that can be directed quickly and effectively in response to threats of injustice and oppression.”
Today, Pantsuit Nation is a registered 501(c)(4) nonprofit. Pantsuit Nation Foundation, its associated charitable foundation that supports the work of Pantsuit Nation, is currently under application as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. This May, the group will release a book of stories published by Flatiron Books. More than 250 Pantsuit Nation members contributed writing and photography to the book. I for one can’t wait to turn its pages, read those stories, see those photos, and continue doing my part to turn the course of our nation toward better, brighter days for all of us.