Bustle Exclusive

Phoebe Gates Is Playing The Long Game

The activist is furious about the rollback of reproductive rights. And she wants you to be, too.

Phoebe Gates, the youngest daughter of Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates.
Beth Garrabrant

Phoebe Gates has no time for haters. In fact, the 21-year-old women’s rights advocate, Stanford human biology major, and youngest daughter of Bill and Melinda French Gates rarely reads the comments when she posts about hot-button issues, like the overturning of Roe v. Wade, to her roughly 700,000 followers. “I don’t mean to rag on myself, but I feel like I’m really doing nothing when you think about the doctors at abortion centers who have threats to their safety, to their reputation, to their own financial security by advocating for this work,” she says on a Zoom call from New York, where she’s living while remotely wrapping up her third and final year of studies. “All I’m doing is using my platforms to highlight the people actually doing the work.”

Gates was born with a big following. The third child of Microsoft’s co-founder — currently one of the world’s richest men — grew up outside of Seattle, steeped in activism. Yes, her house happened to have a trampoline room, but her mother made it clear to all three kids that “to whom much is given, much is expected,” meaning their vast wealth came with moral obligations, not just luxury perks. “Since a very young age, it was acknowledged that we, as kids, were in a huge position of privilege, and that came with a ton of responsibility for us to do something good,” says Gates, who’s rumored to be dating Sir Paul McCartney’s grandson. (She declined to comment on the topic.)

She watched both her parents traverse the globe for their philanthropic foundation, funding lifesaving health and education initiatives. But one issue resonated most deeply. “Since I was very little, my mom would come home after traveling with stories of advocating for women to get access to birth control, of women who’d been raped who couldn’t get abortions,” says Gates. “Her going into reproductive freedom was what ignited my interests.”

Phoebe with Melinda French Gates.Gotham/GC Images/Getty Images
And with Bill Gates at the Time 100 gala.Variety/Penske Media/Getty Images
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In the Gates household, sex ed and abortion were discussed openly — but smartphones were restricted. “I got a phone when I was 12 or 13. It was a big deal because it was banned in our family until you were a certain age,” says Gates, whose parents’ rule was that the kids had to put their phones away before bed. Teenage Phoebe once crafted a decoy out of cardboard to plug in at night so she could sneak her actual phone into her bedroom. “I thought I could dupe my dad, and it worked, actually, for a couple nights,” she says, laughing. “And then my mom came home and was like, ‘This is literally a piece of cardboard you’re plugging in. You’re using your phone in your room.’ Oh, my gosh, I remember getting in trouble for that.”

Bill, who has famously pledged to give away the majority of his fortune, was, if not the good cop, then certainly the glass-half-full guy. “Optimism was definitely something that was pushed around the table at dinner,” Gates says. “If there was ever an issue or a conflict, it was always about: ‘How can you solve it? How can you be thinking optimistically about these things?’” After she graduates college this summer, her first solve will be in the field of sustainable shopping, as she plans to launch the fashion-tech company Phia, co-founded with her Stanford roommate. (They’ve already collaborated with Stella McCartney on a handbag collection.)

The call to action, for our generation, is that we need to fight to get these rights back. This isn’t going to be a quick win. This is going to be a slow burn, long battle.

Below, she discusses why the Dobbs decision didn’t shock her, the importance of anger around this issue, and why there’s really only one thing you can do about it.

Do you feel pressure to be the most educated, the most informed, the most articulate on any issue because of who your parents are?

Yeah, I mean it’s a huge amount of pressure. But it’s the most privileged pressure in the world, to have the honor to try to fill those shoes, to learn the most I can, and to do the best I can to represent these voices.

How did you become so passionate about abortion rights?

It comes from growing up with my mom and from when I did a trip down to Louisiana [in January 2023] and saw the actual loss of reproductive freedom. Being around the abortion care providers, it’s hard not to get inspired. These people work so selflessly all the time. Now, for a lot of them, their work is outlawed. And they’re doing everything to help women who need it.

Going back to your childhood, how were issues around sex education and bodily autonomy communicated to you in your family?

My parents were pretty open about that stuff. I’m the third kid, so I’m sure they were more open with me than they were with my sister. But it was constantly a discussion for us, because the foundation was doing so much work in access to birth control, and my mom would come home with the emotional weight of what she had seen.

This issue is not just about abortion. It’s an attack on women’s personal freedom and the ability to choose what’s right for you. My parents always framed it as abortion was an issue of personal choice — just the same way as choosing where you go to school, and choosing the career you have. Having body autonomy is the only way you can do that. It unlocks financial freedom, educational freedom.

Gates with Busy Philipps and Tlaleng Mofokeng at 2023’s Global Citizen Festival.Noam Galai/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

What gives you the courage to speak out so publicly?

These doctors who are bringing women into abortion centers and getting heckled by protesters — I don’t have to face any of the hardships they do. So it’s the most minor thing I can do. I mean, it’s insane: You speak to doctors and medical students in Louisiana, and they can’t get a board-certified [obstetrician] in the U.S. to teach them the procedure for abortion. They might have a patient bleeding out on the table and wouldn’t be able to do anything for her because they hadn’t been taught that. I’m angry about the entire situation.

What’s your advice for other women who want to speak out, in spite of the forces that seek to silence them?

It’s fascinating, because we have data that once a woman reaches a certain number of followers, there are actually coordinated attacks on her social media platform in a way you don’t see with men who are posting political beliefs. So there actually is a layer of sexism to it. For me, I just don’t read the comment section.

Would it be a deal-breaker if someone you were dating did not share your views?

Yeah, definitely. If I had a partner who didn’t respect my personal freedoms or the personal freedoms of women around the country to choose what’s right for ourselves and our families, I definitely think that would be a deal-breaker.

Variety/Variety/Getty Images

Are you shocked to see how rights have been dismantled in your lifetime?

I’m not shocked because it really is about power. Because even though you have the majority of the country supporting a woman’s right to choose, you don’t have the right people in power. The fact that you have the top S&P 500 companies and there are as many women CEOs on there as men named John is just a crystal-clear example of that. So it’s super disappointing, but no, I was not shocked because we still haven’t given women the positions of power they deserve and the right to be in the room.

What role does TikTok play in this fight?

I view social media as a huge tool I can use in my advocacy. It can be leveraged for good when you think about pulling together communities, or advocating for the spread of sex-ed information that people need, or [sharing] how they can access medical abortion pills. Yet on the flip side, there are challenges to social media, like women facing higher rates of cyberbullying or derogatory messaging. But it’s less about social media being the issue and more of it being a reflection of the negative things we have in society, of ourselves.

How old were you when you were allowed to start using social media?

I probably got Snapchat at around 15 or 16, so that was the first time I had access to social media. [Before that] I had the Windows phone, and Snapchat hadn’t even made an app for it, so there was no social media on there. My parents gave me enough freedom where the phone could be used as a tool, so if I wanted to go somewhere and stay in contact with them, they knew I was safe. But they were pretty good about monitoring my presence online.

Gates with Deja Foxx at 2023’s Global Citizen NOW Summit.Noam Galai/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

You wrote in an essay for Vogue that people need to stay angry. What do you mean by that?

When I wrote that, my biggest concern was that there was going to be an influx of support with the news of the Dobbs decision, and then people wouldn't stay angry. My fear was that people would get complacent. When things like the Alabama IVF ruling happen, you need to keep people engaged, focused, and angry enough so they're actually activating themselves. The call to action, for our generation, is that we need to fight to get these rights back. This isn’t going to be a quick win. This is going to be a slow burn, long battle.

What can someone reading this do about it?

Get out there and vote. I see this election coming up as you have one candidate who respects our rights and you have another who’s taking them away. The abortion issue isn’t just about abortion. It’s about having the ability to make decisions about your body with the people you love. We know that personal freedoms and abortions do win elections. Vote for your freedom. Vote for the freedom of other women around you. Vote for the women who don’t have access. Vote for the abortion care providers who are literally risking their lives every day. Do it. All-caps. Bold. Highlighted in pink. Vote, vote, vote.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.