On Thursday night I walked out of the White House for the last time, for at least the foreseeable future. The walls in my office have been bare all week and boxes have been stacked with notes from colleagues, books and photos from the ten years I have worked for Barack Obama. As I was driving my car out of the gate, it hit me that for the first time, in a long time, I am not officially a part of something bigger than myself. On Saturday morning, I will join friends from college, my brother and sister-in-law visiting from Ohio, and tens of thousands of people I have never met for the Women’s March. Like many people I was looking for a place to be, and one that would help remind me that there are a lot of other people who share my concerns about the future. My Facebook and Instagram feeds are already full of photos and anecdotes in anticipation of the march, of feminist quotes inviting others to join and photos of homemade pink cat hats and nasty women t-shirts. But I have a sinking feeling in my stomach about the march. Not because I am worried about the cold or the chaos. But because I worry it will give too many people license to congratulate themselves for their activism and move on with their daily lives. Don’t get me wrong. In the week when we celebrated Martin Luther King and his peaceful activism, a march for women is a healthy alternative to wallowing on your couch. It was an emotionally raw place in the White House in the days after the election. Just as it was for millions of people across the country. We didn’t see it coming and the shock felt personal. There were grown men and women in senior staff meetings with tears streaming down their faces. And a brutal photo of all of us standing in the Rose Garden that morning that has its own Harry Potter-themed memes online. It took the President gathering up an impromptu meeting of the communications team in the Oval Office, the morning after the election, to remind us that “History doesn’t move in a straight line. It zigs and zags.” We gave ourselves until after Thanksgiving to pull it together, to greet the new team gracefully. It required us to live in two worlds: One where we are gracious hosts, welcoming our successors and providing endless binders of logistical information. And, the other where we each took time to reflect on what the outcome of the election meant for us, for the issues we had worked on and fought for, for the draw to public service that had led most of us to start working for a skinny guy with a funny name ten years ago. It felt dishonest.
The march shouldn’t be a moment to rest and celebrate. It should be a warm up.
But there have also been some signs of light. Members of my team who had been planning to move across the country or overseas, came tell me they wanted to stay in public life. Many friends and family who haven’t worked in politics are coming in for the march this weekend. Those are good signs.
With a new President coming in I have find myself facing a few hard questions. What do I care most deeply about? What are the issues I want to sink myself into? How can I make a difference as an individual? It feels overwhelming. The march this weekend feels like a short term answer to that. The danger we face is allowing the march to make us feel better, to lull us into complacency. That is where the sinking feeling is coming from. There are more post mortems about the outcome of the election than I can recount, but one thing is clear. People didn’t show up. And not just to vote. Though more than 90 million eligible voters did not show up on Election Day. But to volunteer, to make phone calls, to donate, to run for office. The campaign didn’t show up in rural, red districts or suburbs where the assumption was made that undecided and female voters would vote for someone of the same gender and against the misogynist and racist language we heard during the campaign. There is a lot of uncertainty floating about what is next. What the next Administration will do on issues ranging from access to affordable healthcare, to access to clean air and drinking water to equal pay and paid leave. And I have overheard a lot of happy talk about how the next President is actually more moderate on these issues, how the people close to him would never allow him to take away access to contraception, or paid leave for mothers. Let’s hope not. But let’s not bet on it. There has also been a lot of talk about not allowing the new reality to become normal. Part of that is not lowering our own bar for what is acceptable and what is progress. So let’s be clear. Putting a few women in positions of power alone is not progress. Having members of your family taut a commitment to women’s issues is not progress. And we need to stay focused. Not all on the same thing. But on figuring out how to each do our part. In the midst of sharing Facebook photos, war stories about rain gear and snacks and extra layers, the most important step attendees can take is to determine what in their daily lives they will do to stand up to bigotry or sexism, to help encourage a candidate to get in the race, make an action plan for the year to engage in an issue or local race, defend a friend or coworker or even run for office. And we are going to have to get a little bit uncomfortable in our daily lives to do that by making time, by thinking hard about what we care about, by speaking up even when it isn’t easy. The march shouldn’t be a moment to rest and celebrate. It should be a warm up.
Jen Psaki is the former White House Communications Director (as of yesterday), former State Department spokesperson, mother of eighteen month old daughter Vivi, and soon to be fellow at the Georgetown Institute of Politics.