Women started social-media sanctuaries in 2016 to share their support for Hillary Clinton in the face of virulent bipartisan misogyny. Post-election, they evolved into an organizing force.
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There’s a lovely scene midway through A Little Chaos, which is set in Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV, and hit U.S. movie screens in the spring of 2016. Kate Winslet plays a woman brought in to design what will become the palace’s legendary gardens. Jennifer Ehle is a consort to the king who has fallen out of his favor as she has gotten older. The king attempts to set them against each other at their first meeting, but Winslet’s character resists. Ehle’s character repays this kindness later by inviting her into a secret back room at the palace. It is filled with other women of the court, able in this setting to put aside artifice and talk about themselves without worrying about being pleasing others.
When that scene hit I almost jumped out of my seat. The room was a historical ancestor of the secret pro-Hillary Facebook sanctuaries that emerged during the last presidential election.
I was a member of several. My first invitation came in February 2016, only a handful of months into the Democratic primary, but I was already weary from the battles.
I run an advocacy Facebook page for the Equal Rights Amendment which at the time had around 30,000 subscribers. It seemed like a no-brainer that a page pushing for expanded female citizenship would openly support the first woman to have a real shot at winning the presidency, but there were instant, angry responses calling her a warmonger, referring to her as Killary and $hillary, and worse.
It soon became clear that the attacks were coordinated. The swiftness of the attacks made it obvious there were search alerts involved. Seconds after posting anything even mentioning Hillary Clinton, trolls would begin to swoop in. I didn’t yet know they were being summoned by Moscow, but I knew they were being summoned by someone.
I would occasionally debate more reasonable-sounding trolls, just so the arguments against what they claimed were accessible to fans of the page who might want to hear the counter-argument. Mostly I would block and delete. It wasn’t particularly stressful. It was like swatting mosquitoes.
The trolls I knew in real life were more stressful. So many men wanted to tell me, repeatedly, how unappealing and uninspiring they found the female candidate. Sometimes on Facebook posts that weren’t even about the election. These were Bernie-supporting left-wing men who believed themselves to be progressive about gender. Still, there they were in my comments trashing this woman making history.
It was exhausting.
I would battle with them openly, drawing on the experiences I’d been having on my Equal Rights Amendment page. Clinton-supporting friends would sometimes join in, but not many at first.
Then I started getting private messages from other women, once or twice a week, thanking me for speaking up with my Hillary support. They said I had given them the courage to do the same, despite the Hillary hatred they would encounter in response.
Women have been explicitly banned from participating in the public sphere for most of our country’s existence. We were prevented from voting, running for office, serving on juries, reporting the news, simply speaking aloud on a public stage, and so on. Though we can and do all these things now, we are still not legally considered full citizens. This all stems from a deliberate choice made early in our founding, in part as a reaction to the bloody and chaotic French Revolution, which was blamed in part by some, including Thomas Jefferson, on women meddling in political affairs.
Before the Revolution, France was, of course, a monarchy, so all political power rested with Le Roi—l’etat, c’est moi, and all that—but thousands openly ran the country in the monarch’s name, and they were all men. Women exerted their power behind the scenes. Among the aristocracy, the public role of women was to look fetching and to speak in ways that pleased the men, particularly the king.
Over 200 years later, while women now have the right to participate in the public sphere through voting and running for office and serving on juries, the act of speaking freely in the public sphere continues to be the one that gets us into the most trouble. Clinton’s voice was consistently described as too loud, too soft, too shrill, too angry, even as her two main opponents were guys who yelled all the time. More recently, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who has faced five times more coverage for referring to the president as a “motherfucker” than Sen. Steve King, who asked why his white supremacist rhetoric is offensive. With newsrooms still dominated by white men, media narratives are shaped by their biases, both unconscious and not. That then impacts what the general public thinks is happening.
That first pro-Hillary group I was pulled into was expressly for those of us who were weary from battles with sexist Bernie enthusiasts. Its name was a play on the “Feel the Bern” slogan, and brought together an intimate gathering of mostly women, many of whom were writers.
It was a tremendous relief to complain about Bernie openly without instant reprimands. Then it became more and more a place to gather our strength together. We would spend hours researching Hillary’s policy positions, and the choices she had made during her long career, then share our findings with the others to better equip ourselves for the battles. With our membership kept to a cozy few hundred, we got to know each others’ regular trolls by name. We’d jump into the group to call for back-up, and members would swoop into our comment sections like Valkyries. None of us feared the public sphere.
About a month or so later, a comedy-writer friend wrote to say that SHE was considering starting up a secret pro-Hillary/Bernie-is-annoying group, wanting to know if I thought it was a good idea. I told her I was already in one, and encouraged her to do it—and then found myself becoming one of the four administrators. It became a big, sprawling group of over 4000, members, and we spent more time than we should have moderating disagreements, and we kicked out a lot of people.
It was loaded with other comedian types, so it got bawdy fast, and there were enough well-known people, and people with sensitive jobs, that we had to have strict rules about maintaining secrecy. Still, we tried to make it a space that encouraged engagement with the public sphere, if for no other reason than to counter the prevailing media narrative that no one was enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton.
Then the number of secret pro-Hillary groups exploded. It seemed I was getting pulled into a new one every day. Some were profession-specific—journalists, activists, quilters—others not so much. Some were probably run by Russians. Once the primary had ended, the groups’ focus was recast to keeping up our spirits in the face of the GOP Horror Show’s over-the-top misogyny than that of the Bernie bros’. The secret groups began to get notice in the press, particularly Pantsuit Nation, which had millions of followers, and leaned toward a you-go-girl celebratory tone. Like many of the later groups, though, it sometimes seemed to act as cover for women not speaking out about their support. It all seemed like a done deal. It was impossible to imagine this awful man getting elected.
The awful man got elected. All the things Hillary Clinton had warned us about happened. All the shenanigans that her ardent supporters had noticed had borne fruit.
Though Clinton had overwhelmingly won the popular vote, losing only in the electoral college vote, the quietness of her support base helped lend credence to the idea that no one had actually liked her. Clinton herself, in her concession speech, thanked all of the members of secret groups that had supported her, but allowed that she wished that they’d maybe spoken out a little more. It was frustrating for those of us who did speak out, too, that so many women had remained silent. I had spent a year being battered for my support, hours of my time trying to get the truth out in the face of Wikileaks and Putin and Bernie bros and pressrooms full of misogynist men. At the same time, so many white women weren’t willing to stand up and speak out simply because they didn’t want to be seen as unappealing, too.
All of this backroom organizing, though, did pay off a few months later when millions of women marched in Washington, D.C. and around the world the day after the inauguration wearing hand-knit hats and carrying signs that made their disdain for Trump clear. It was too late to stop this man from getting into office, but it signaled that the resistance would be fierce and that women would lead it.
Two months after the Women’s March, Nevada suddenly ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, the first time a state had done so since 1977. Illinois followed in 2018, making the amendment only one state short of the total number needed for full ratification. The election had ignited a zillion “click!” moments, as Jane O’Reilly had called them in the first issue of Ms. Magazine in 1971. While before our lack of guaranteed citizenship in the Constitution had seemed to many to be merely symbolic, the election had shown how real it was and how much of an impact it had on our day-to-day lives.
The groups that had encouraged engagement had soldiered on, still useful for venting and organizing. Women continued to join for the community and the relief.
More women ran for office than ever before with 476 running just for the House alone. In the end, 102 won, bringing the House total up to 127 female members, a staggering increase over past years. In comparison, the 1992 Year of the Women saw 24 female members added to the House. It was also a diverse group, an appropriate reflection of the women who have done so much of the political work in our country.
The work of running for office is very public, and it was gratifying to see so many women speaking out finally, both as candidates and supporters.
The secret groups, some more active than others, remain a refuge in the face of public onslaught. Members rode hard for Nancy Pelosi when her potential Speakership was threatened by White guys looking to make the Democratic Party more appealing to other White guys. The difference now was that the private grumbling was usually followed by public statements
There has been some eye-rolling in the pro-Hillary groups about the still male-dominated media and their fixation on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the new young upstart Representative from New York City as the savior of the Democratic Party. The attacks by some group members were leaning in a pretty misogynistic direction. My fellow admins and I found ourselves needing to discuss what our group’s role would be now that the 2020 election has officially kicked off. The four of us had pulled away from our work in the group since the election, taking a much needed break. Now we’ve been pulled back in.
We thought about disbanding the group, but the community has become incredibly important to people, beyond what we ever expected. So, we’re tidying up, removing people who no longer spark joy, and re-emphasizing our role as a refuge, not a place for intense political debate. We’re urging members to be a little more public with their politics.
Ocasio-Cortez herself, meanwhile, while brash and provocative, proved unwilling to be a spoiler, embracing Sharice Davids, the new Representative from Kansas who she’d campaigned against during the primaries, and compromising with Pelosi in exchange for a promise of an important committee seat. There were men who were trying to divide them by providing the ones they found appealing with their attentions, but Pelosi and AOC weren’t falling for it. The Democratic women of the House were sticking together.
The Founders, it turns out, were right to be concerned about women entering the public sphere. Once we finally do it, nothing is the same.
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