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What do ‘Pantsuit Nation’ women want? Here’s what you need to know about women’s movements.

- January 19, 2017
Tamika Mallory, right, co-chair of the Women’s March on Washington, talks during an interview Jan. 9 with fellow co-chairs Carmen Perez, left, and Linda Sarsour  in New York. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

Before the election, a pro-Clinton Facebook group went viral. Pantsuit Nation now has more than 3 million members, many of whom were eager to celebrate the first woman in the United States’ top office.

When that hope was dashed, many members created local and state Pantsuit Nation pages, with the idea of fighting the incoming president. National Pantsuit Nation leaders stopped that local organizing under the Facebook group’s name, explaining that they were forming a 501c(3) organization and could not lobby. Many activists scrambled to form replacement groups such as Together We Will, Action Together Network and Suit Up Action Network.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/01/09/this-is-whats-behind-the-stunning-decline-in-female-political-leaders/?utm_term=.b0bfafd5f100″]The number of countries with female leaders has plummeted[/interstitial_link]

Others have written about the inherent mistakes and missed opportunities made by Pantsuit Nation in developing an orientation that to many looked focused on selling merchandise and telling stories and less on action-oriented resistance.

So will these offshoot groups be able to harness and mobilize the women’s energy that was roiling online?

Political scientists have done a significant amount of research on social movements. Here’s what we know.

So, is this a women’s movement?

Pantsuit Nation was started by women excited about the United States’ first major-party female nominee for president. That said, it could fall into one of several categories of social movements in which women are involved, as Candice Ortbals and I point out in several articles.

A women’s movement works on issues specifically related to gender, and can be feminist, anti-feminist or nonfeminist. Feminist movements, such as the movement for women’s voting rights or Code Pink, challenge political, social and other power arrangements that are based on gender. Anti-feminist movements, such as Phyllis Schlafly’s crusade against the Equal Rights Amendment, protect women’s socially ascribed gender roles, like mother or wife. Nonfeminist movements, like Susan G Komen, accept women’s involvement in the public sphere but aim for something other than changes in gender relations.

GROUP STANDING IN FRONT OF THE GENEVA HEADQUARTERS OF THE WOMAN’S PARTY INTERNATIONAL COMMITTEE, CA. 1932 Photo by Metropoll. Alice Paul Papers, courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Harvard University

A group standing in front of  the Geneva headquarters of the Woman’s Party International Committee around 1932. (Metropoll/Alice Paul Papers/Courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Harvard University)

We don’t know where Pantsuit Nation-inspired groups will fall. Some groups appear to operate with a feminist ideology, while others seem to be focusing on countering Trump, with little mention of feminism.

For example, Together We Will, USA may be nearly entirely female-run, but its three main pillars for action — healthy communities, equity and liberty, and justice for all — are not focused on feminism. Similarly, Suit Up Action Network calls itself a social justice movement that wants to “take human rights advocacy to the next level” — which may involve women’s rights but doesn’t appear to be explicitly feminist.

By contrast, the Women’s March on Washington, a group that grew in parallel with PSN but not necessarily from it, articulates an explicitly feminist agenda, including its slogan “the rise of the woman equals the rise of the nation” and statements that marchers “will not rest until women have parity and equity at all levels of leadership in society.”

Will Pantsuit Nation’s offshoots consolidate or fracture further?

Women’s movements throughout history have fractured into more traditional and radical branches, such as those who lobby for women’s health vs. those who stage naked protests. They are successful when they support one another. Movements that have been grass-roots have been more effective in U.S. history. We can expect Pantsuit Nation-inspired movements to be successful if they avoid infighting and focus on grass-roots activism.

What sort of action should we expect?

What type of action may we expect out of the Pantsuit Nation-inspired movements? Candice Ortbals and I researched women’s movements in Europe, examining how social movements respond to different political climates — when the power structure is open to their agendas and when it’s closed.

When there’s no real opening for change, groups are especially likely to work outside political institutions, with such activities as protests and demonstrations, rather than to work on lobbying or consulting with sympathetic legislators and power players to advance their goals.

For most women’s movements, offshoots of Pantsuit Nation, and other left-leaning groups, such a “closed” moment comes when the right is in power. Women’s movements have historically been less likely to protest than other left-leaning movements. Given the extremely inhospitable political climate, however, Pantsuit Nation-inspired groups may launch a new era of U.S. women’s protests. The Women’s March on Washington is an early manifestation of what we may see.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/01/10/social-policies-dont-always-help-women-and-men-equally-we-did-the-math-on-which-work-best/?utm_term=.b45478d2542e”]Social policies don’t always help women and men equally. This is what makes the difference[/interstitial_link]

Such groups may also look for opportunities where they’re more likely to succeed — for instance, by working locally or internationally, as European women’s groups have done over the past 50 years when the right is in power.

We know to expect attacks on allies

Although social movements may take to the streets when the right is in power, according to the expectation-punishment axiom, they are more likely to issue statements critical of political parties aligned with them ideologically when those parties do not meet their demands. When left-leaning parties were in power in Europe, for instance, women’s movements were critical of them.

From this, we can expect Pantsuit Nation-inspired groups to expect more from Democrats than Republicans. They may march in the streets against Republicans, but when Democrats do not respond to their pressure, these groups will lash back swiftly and fiercely.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/01/06/will-democrats-gain-as-the-u-s-gets-more-diverse-maybe-not-heres-why/?utm_term=.ae9924e7df10″]The U.S. is becoming more racially diverse. But Democrats may not benefit.[/interstitial_link]

In fact, my research suggests, we can expect this movement to be more critical of Democratic than Republican leaders — precisely because they expect more from them. For example, if individual Democrats do not come out strongly against defunding Planned Parenthood, Pantsuit Nation-inspired groups will sharply criticize them via a variety of social and traditional media outlets. If Trump were to nominate to the Supreme Court an individual known to be anti-choice and Democrats refused to filibuster, expect a similar backlash. This is not unlike the tea party backlash we saw against Republicans during the early 2000s.

In crisis, opportunity

Even though Republicans are about to control all branches of the U.S. government, the Pantsuit Nation-inspired movement may nevertheless find some opportunities to work within the system, not just outside it.

When parties face electoral volatility — electoral instability due to competition from within parties or the shifting of constituents among parties — research tells us that politicians look for new constituencies, elites and various citizen groups have more contact with one another; and legislators become more willing or able to vote based on personal preference rather than party line. Those all open doors for grass-roots movements to work with governments.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/01/03/the-surprising-racial-and-gender-bias-in-law-and-order/?utm_term=.cb4461b43c30″]The surprising racial and gender bias in ‘Law and Order'[/interstitial_link]

Scholars are mixed on whether we are seeing electoral volatility in the U.S. system. The opportunities for Pantsuit Nation-inspired groups to influence the policy debate through conventional activity, such as lobbying, will hinge on the movements’ ability to capitalize on any volatility that is there.

Lori Poloni-Staudinger is professor and chair of politics and international affairs at Northern Arizona University and founder of a local post-election activist group in Flagstaff, Ariz. Find her on Twitter @lori_poloni.