Washington (AFP) - The secret Facebook group sprung up in the final days of the 2016 presidential election, bringing together Hillary Clinton supporters who simply wanted to champion their candidate among fellow enthusiasts.
Now numbering just under four million members, Pantsuit Nation is a space for progressive women and their ??allies to share personal stories -- ?many uplifting, others heartbreaking -- in a nation divided under President Donald Trump.
"It's easy to get hopeless as supporters of Secretary Clinton, as liberals and Democrats, (and) to feel alone," founder Libby Chamberlain told AFP.
"We have so many members who live in communities or families where they don't have like-minded individuals... they can't go next door to commiserate with the neighbor about what's happening at the national level, but they can go to this space online."
The 33-year-old runs Pantsuit Nation from a spare bedroom in her home in tiny Brooklin, Maine, a coastal town of 800 residents primarily known for boat-building.
She started the Facebook group on October 20, while working two part-time jobs at nearby high schools. Her idea was to encourage Clinton supporters to wear pantsuits -- the Democratic former secretary of state's go-to outfit -- to the polls on November 8.
Overnight, the group ballooned to 24,000 people as members added friends, who then added their friends. By November 5, Pantsuit Nation had grown to a million members, reaching 3.1 million by the end of Election Day.
Photos of exuberant pantsuit-clad women at polling sites quickly gave way to posts brimming with anger and despair following Trump's electoral win.
These days, Pantsuit Nation's content centers around Trump's conservative agenda, with members describing the real-life effects of his moves to restrict immigration, tear up health care laws or remove protections for transgender people.
"I think there is a hunger in this country for personal stories that humanize the impact of policy that is happening at the national, state and local level," Chamberlain said.
"It feels immediate and human and it allows people to hold onto something," she said.
- 'Double whammy' -
Darla Barar, a 30-year-old marketing copywriter in Austin, Texas, wrote on Pantsuit Nation about her late-term abortion and voiced opposition to a measure in Congress seeking to define human life as beginning at fertilization.
"This bill really hit us hard because the wording is such that it would essentially put a ban on IVF procedures as well as abortion," said Barar. "It was a double whammy for us."
She was expecting twins, conceived through IVF, when a scan at the midpoint of her pregnancy revealed one of her daughters had grave issues including a neural tube defect that was allowing brain matter to leak out of her skull.
If the baby she and her husband Peter had already named Catherine survived delivery, she would have been severely disabled, if not a vegetable. Meanwhile, the growth of Catherine's amniotic sac was restricting that of her twin, Olivia, putting both babies in danger.
Barar ultimately decided to abort Catherine to give Olivia a better chance of being born healthy.
"On June 22 at 3:30 pm, the doctor let us see and hear Cate one last time. I remember she danced for us. And then, guided by ultrasound, the doctor injected a medication into Cate's heart, stopping it. When they checked for a heartbeat 30 minutes later, the silence was deafening. And then they found Olivia's strong beating heart and we cried. We cried for Olivia's survival and for Cate's loss, our loss, Olivia's loss," she wrote in Pantsuit Nation.
"Ours is the story of late-term abortion. We are the issue that pro-birthers debate without knowing, without having been there."
Olivia was born healthy and is now five months old.
- Future impact? -
Chamberlain, who said she has not profited from Pantsuit Nation, is in the process of establishing it as a non-profit group, giving it a structure to grow outside of Facebook.
She hopes to hire three or four employees soon to replace some of her 65 volunteers, who in addition to running the Facebook page and other social media platforms also support 20 local Pantsuit Nation chapters that formed organically post-election.
Chamberlain is also editing a Pantsuit Nation book, due out on May 9, which has drawn a fair amount of criticism by some who allege that she is selling the stories of others.
She defends herself, saying the people featured are enthusiastic about being included and that her ultimate goal, which she says may be "naive and impossible," is for the book to find its way to people who may never be part of the Facebook group.
"I want to create change and facilitate dialogue and push Pantsuit Nation as far as I can in terms of changing future elections," she said.
It's a crucial time for Pantsuit Nation, as keeping grassroots organizations going can be very challenging, said Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College.
"Telling those stories is important and a lot of people have those stories. They can continue to do that but that won't have political impact unless it's accompanied by an agenda and a strategy for accomplishing specific political goals," she said.