Scarlett Curtis loves Instagram just as much as any other 23-year-old. But she uses it for a reason – and that’s to get organised. Her new favourite discovery isn’t some glossy influencer but The Clams, a feminist synchronised-swimming group from Australia, who recently staged a water ballet to bust open taboos around periods, complete with giant pool-float tampons. “That’s what social media is to me now,” Curtis explains. It’s not for posting pictures of avocado toast, but for exploring new ideas and issues – ways for Generation Z feminists to get educated and organised.
It’s a sunny morning in Notting Hill, where shortly Curtis will be hosting a sold-out live event on the politics of female masturbation with her friend, Grace Campbell. “It’s much more than wanking – it’s about pleasure inequality and ways that women view their bodies and it becomes a problem in relationships,” explains Campbell, 24, as she runs through plans for the #GirlsWankToo evening, including a panel of speakers and a video-diary room where guests can share stories in private.
This is the second campaign the two have launched via The Pink Protest, the online platform they co-founded with illustrator Alice Skinner in the hopes of putting rocket fuel under grassroots feminist causes. This first involved partnering with schoolgirl activist Amika George’s Free Periods campaign against period poverty and culminated in a rally outside Downing Street calling for free sanitary protection for girls on free school meals; the models Daisy Lowe and Suki Waterhouse turned up, alongside Labour MPs Jess Phillips and Paula Sherriff and the beauty YouTuber, Tanya Burr, for what Curtis gleefully recalls as: “The best day of my whole life. It was nearly Christmas, all those people showing up who made so many friends…” If political activism once had a painfully earnest reputation, these days it’s where the cool girls are.
Celebrities campaigning can, of course, all too easily raise hackles, but it’s a world these two are well used to navigating. Writer Curtis is the daughter of the filmmaker Richard Curtis and presenter Emma Freud, co-founders of Red Nose Day; screenwriter Campbell’s parents are former Downing Street spin doctors Fiona Millar and Alastair Campbell. (She recently made the headlines by ringing into a radio phone-in her dad was hosting and upbraiding him, live on air, for not being a sufficiently conscientious feminist, pointing out that Campbell talks a good game but still can’t work the dishwasher.) They met at a photoshoot for Elle magazine when, at the ripe old ages of 19 and 20, respectively, both were made contributing editors – and they’ve both been around well-connected people since they were tiny.
Yet they don’t come across as spoilt little rich girls dabbling in fashionable causes so much as daughters raised on the assumption that, as Campbell puts it, “If something’s wrong, you fix it and you don’t let anyone get in your way.” They’re only too conscious of their privilege and anxious to use it to amplify other women. “Scarlett and I are very lucky. We come from well-connected families; we’ve grown up in environments that have been really useful. We might as well use that, not pretend it’s not there,” Campbell adds. Hence the idea for The Pink Protest, bringing her political nous and Curtis’ experience with charities and NGOs together for the benefit of causes that might not otherwise get heard.
They’ve certainly picked their moment. We’re living through an era of powerful female-led social change, from Ireland’s Repeal the Eighth campaign to the #MeToo movement, unleashing both anger and a new surge of optimism about what’s possible. In the US, a recent think-tank study found young women were more likely than young men to be politically active in anything, from volunteering for a cause to attending a protest, while on this side of the Atlantic thousands joined the women’s march against Donald Trump.
Scarlett and I are very lucky. We come from well-connected families; we’ve grown up in environments that have been really useful. We might as well use that, not pretend it’s not there
And, while A-listers are clearly getting in on the act, with actors taking activists instead of conventional partners to the Golden Globes and stars like Lily Allen weighing in over the Grenfell Tower disaster, it’s the ordinary women using their own life experiences to change things for others who are arguably more inspiring for many.
Think of Gina Martin, the 26-year-old advertising creative who campaigned for “upskirting” to be made a criminal offence, after a man covertly took photos up her skirt at a music festival. Within months, she was in talks with the justice minister, Lucy Frazer, over making that a reality, and, despite last week’s setback (when a backbench bill on the issue was blocked), it’s now to be adopted as a government bill, which means it should become law. Think, too, of then-schoolgirl, and The Pool contributor, June Eric-Udorie persuading education ministers to put feminism on the A-level politics syllabus or writer Bryony Gordon turning her own experience of OCD into a grassroots mental-health movement. Things that matter to young women are still all too often pigeonholed as frivolous or niche issues, but they're getting results – the government set aside £1.5m for alleviating period poverty in the budget, after concerted pressure from women MPs lobbied by young female activists.
“The way that politics is functioning is now is so out of date with people my age,” says Campbell, who argues Generation Z are more drawn towards single-issue movements springing up across traditional party boundaries to embrace whoever’s interested. “Scarlett’s and my long-term goal is to get the voting age down to 16 – young people need more power; the current system isn’t fit for us. We’re not party political people – we’re issue-led people.”
The snag, however, is that, as she herself points out, “there are so many amazing young women not getting light and attention”. No matter how good your idea is, it’s harder than it looks for would-be activists to get real traction in public life if they don’t have the connections, cash or time to spare on spreading the message. (If you’ve ever wondered how activists earn a living, the answer is that it’s generally not from activism.)
Caroline Criado Perez is best known now for campaigning to put Jane Austen’s face on banknotes and get a statue of Millicent Fawcett erected opposite parliament, but her activist career began when she set up a website, The Women’s Room, to promote female expertise.
“When I started, I was doing a fully funded masters at LSE and that gave me time to be able to start it,” she explains. “And, since then, I’ve been writing, which is a flexible and also privileged career. If I had been working full-time in an office, I wouldn’t have had the energy or the time.” Obviously, activism doesn’t have to be on such a daunting scale – it can simply mean changing one thing in your own workplace or life – but running a big campaign isn’t as easy as it’s sometimes made to look. “The Jane Austen campaign took over my life for three months, I didn’t really do anything else,” says Criado Perez. “I feel guilty when people say, ‘God, how do you do it?’ and I think, well, I’m incredibly lucky, I had a good start in life and that makes a difference.”
But, as she puts it, “the onus is on people who can, to do what they can to help others”. It’s a very millennial take: check your privilege, but don’t let that stop you using it for the greater good. And that’s what The Pink Protest is designed to do.
The Pink Protest’s motto that the revolution will be on Instagram is only half-meant as a joke
The idea to weigh in on period poverty came originally from a film series Curtis and Campbell were making on young activists, through which they were introduced to Amika George. “She came along and we loved her, and the campaign and the cause, so we built her a website, we did the whole press and PR campaign, we organised the protest and we put her in touch with Jess Phillips and Paula Sherriff and got things rolling. It was all her ideas, but we just served to help make it happen,” says Curtis, who describes the process as basically providing “PR for activism”.
And the gamechanger now is the speed with which grassroots movements can snowball via social media. Yes, Generation Z are sacrificing some privacy by putting their emotional lives online. But they’re getting more back for it than their middle-aged critics realise, as the teenage survivors of the Parkland school shooting demonstrated earlier this year when their passionate pleas for gun control started going viral on Twitter, making a mockery of the platitudes pumped out by older politicians about how it was “too soon” to talk about changing the law. If you want to change something, it’s never been easier to start a petition, share a video, tell the world how you feel and connect with others feeling the same, which means The Pink Protest’s motto that “the revolution will be on Instagram” is only half-meant as a joke.
“That energy you have when you’re young, that you think you can change things – really now because of social media, you can carry it through,” says Campbell. “I do think we have got this power now. If you see a cause that you care about, there’s a place online where you can go and feel supported and feel like you are part of a community.” And if the alt-right, both here and in America, have been frighteningly quick to exploit that to spread hate, the flipside is that young, liberal women are now realising they need to get organised if they don’t want their freedoms undermined.
The problems Martin’s upskirting bill faced are, admittedly, a sharp reminder that there’s a limit to what activists can do. Nor is anyone arguing that the bite-size policies activists typically campaign for will change the world overnight.
But Generation Z seem to have grasped the idea that it’s better to do something than nothing, and they have little patience with “whataboutery” or critics carping about all the issues they’re not campaigning on or supposedly doing wrong. “That whole thing we had with period poverty, where someone will say, ‘Oh, but what about the other forms of poverty?’ – that’s so irrelevant,” says Campbell. “You are allowed to have one issue that you care about most.” What’s yours?