It was 2:25 a.m. when Hannah Hankins walked out of the White House on election night. It was warm — unseasonably, bizarrely warm — and it seemed to fit the surreal tenor of those early morning hours. As she crossed through the wrought-iron gates and walked onto Pennsylvania Avenue, she saw people smoking cigars, heard them cheering and chanting. There were the people like her, too: people crying, trying to comprehend what had just happened, slumped on the curb near Lafayette Park.
Hankins, who until Friday was the communications director at the White House Domestic Policy Council, had celebrated Barack Obama's win in 2008 as a college student in front of the White House. In 2012, she'd watched the returns as a staffer for the president there, too, running through the streets of downtown D.C. after the race was called, high-fiving strangers. You couldn't beat the energy, the pure adrenaline, of watching history unfold from within the West Wing.
But on this night, leaving the place she'd worked for five years, she knew that — in some way, whatever way she could — she had to fight back.
It's a long-observed custom for former presidents to refrain from criticizing their successors. As much as he may want to, Barack Obama has to stay out of the drama of Washington politics, at least for a time. After all, George W. Bush did the same for him. But Obama's former staffers aren't under the same obligation that their former boss is. Now that he's left office, they're going to fight for their former boss' legacy — and for some staffers, that starts with the Women's March on Saturday.
"We might not be sitting in the seats of power, but the office of citizen is a powerful one if you use it," Hankins says. "I think this gives us that opportunity the day after we step out of those roles at the White House, to really demonstrate the force and the power of citizens coming together."
The unexpected election outcome made some White House staffers rethink their post-administration plans. Hankins says she has colleagues who thought that, once the White House was safely handed off to the first woman president, they could effectively ride into the sunset. "We would have stepped back a little bit, and been more comfortable doing that," Hankins says. Now? "At this point, it still feels like we're the team on the field playing defense."
Though President Obama will not be at the Women's March, his legacy — and the ways Donald Trump could undo key components of it — will be on his former staffers' minds. In his first day in office, Trump signed an executive order urging federal agencies to take steps that would scale back the Affordable Care Act, Obama's signature healthcare law. Obama's climate regulations, too, will likely be some of the first to go.
As they march, Obama's staffers will all be thinking about his counsel in his farewell address: "It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we've been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title: citizen."
Alissa Ko, who until Friday was the associate director at the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement at the White House, plans to march to uphold the work she did under Obama on inclusivity, work she fears could be undone by President Trump. The march, she says, "represents that we as women are here. We want to be heard. We're part of this country."
On Saturday morning, Stephanie Valencia will host some 60 people at her home on D.C.'s Capitol Hill to meet and drink mimosas before walking over to the march. Valencia worked for Obama for eight years, starting on his campaign in 2007. She spent five years in the White House before moving to the Commerce Department, until she left to join Google in 2015. She says that although the march may not bring direct change, the very act of marching, of peaceful protest, is still important. "It changes the people who show up," Valencia says. "And those people, thousands of people who are going to come to the march on Saturday, are all going to go back home feeling empowered, and feeling like they want to hold their government accountable and that their government needs to represent them."
One of the biggest goals for the weekend, says Taylor Barnes, the director of the United State of Women, a summit put on in partnership with the White House last year, "is that this is no one's last act of resistance and participation in the next for years, that this is really the start of their participation."
Hankins and Ko don't know exactly what their plans are next — they need to take a breath first. But all of the women I spoke with know for certain that they want to fight the new administration throughout the next four years.
On Friday, after Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, Barack Obama descended the steps of the Capitol, climbed aboard Executive One (known as Marine One when it carries a sitting president), and waved goodbye to Washington before heading to a much-needed vacation in Southern California. It's time to let his successor take the reigns and get used to the responsibility of the Oval Office. But after eight years of being behind the scenes, deferring to their boss, his staffers will not go quietly.
"At the White House, you have the privilege of being the top voice in a lot of this stuff," Hankins says of policy debates. When she marches on Saturday, she'll be one voice among hundreds of thousands. "I'm really honored just to join the crowd for this one."
Follow Marie Claire on Facebook for the latest celeb news, beauty tips, fascinating reads, livestream video, and more.