Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Madeline Price - The feminist cupcake sale that led to death and rape threats

If someone had told me, one week ago today, that a simple bake sale aiming to educate students about wage disparity in Australia would rile up a university campus to the point of death threats to the organisers, would reach media sources across Australia, the UK and US, and would result in the single most successful bake sale ever to be held on campus, I would have told them not be silly; no one cares about a bake sale.

I also would have been wrong.  The now infamous Gender Pay Gap Bake Sale was an afterthought, a supplementary event to the panel discussions, workshops and stalls to be held throughout feminist week on the University of Queensland campus. We have hosted bake sales before, we just wanted this one to have an educational catch: why not educate students about wage disparity while feeding them sugar?

The idea was that each baked good would only cost you the proportion of $1 that you earn comparative to men (or, if you identify as a man, all baked goods would cost you $1). For example, for a woman of colour in the legal profession, a baked good at the stall would only cost you 55 cents.

Other university campuses and women’s collectives around the world have done it before – from campuses in the US charging more for white students than black students, to campuses in the UK only giving students the proportion of a cupcake they would earn in real life. This was not a new idea.

This particular bake sale, however, started something we could never in a million years have foreseen: a spiral into the darkest depths of gender inequality, the online world of cyberbullying and firsthand experiences of what women face every time they raise their voices.

Far from simply starting a discussion about wage disparity in Australia, the online backlash over the Gender Pay Gap Bake Sale brought to light hundreds of other issues of gender inequality, from sexual violence and threats against women, to why we still need feminism in the 21st century. This bake sale did its job and more.

We had students who had previously dismissed the idea of feminism approach us at the bake sale, purchase an item and explain that they “didn’t believe feminism was still needed until reading the comments posted online.”  These comments, posted by anonymous keyboard warriors (those who love to sit behind their computer screens and attack people changing the world) threatened violence against attendees and organisers of the bake sale, with posts including:

  • “I’m so glad I know this event is on, now I won’t have to sort through all the ugly chicks when I’m out clubbing cos they’ll all be at feminist week instead”
  • “Kill all women”
  • “I’d punch a chick if she winked at me at the bake sale”
  • “Females are fucking scum, they should be put down as babies”
  • “I want to rape these feminist cunts with their fucking baked goods”. 
These comments were posted on the public event page, on subsequent posts about feminist week and sent directly to the email accounts, personal Facebook accounts and, in one case, via voicemail, of the organisers of feminist week, general members of the UQ Union Women’s Collective and to staff members who spoke out in support of the event.

This innocuous bake sale drew a vitriol of negative, derogatory and threatening online comments from people threatened by a discussion about equality and feminism; a discussion that we now, so obviously, need to be having in a public space.

As with all keyboard warriors, however, they never materialise in real life. The actual bake sale event was filled with positivity, support and enthusiasm for starting the conversation about wage disparity, the online behaviours of others, and, most importantly, global gender equality.

But while the keyboard warriors remained behind their screens, the threat to the safety and lives of women, the silencing of women in public spaces, and the wage disparity around the world are still very real issues that impact upon women and other marginalised groups in everyday life. These are the issues that the vitriol of online comments regarding the bake sale brought to light.

The bake sale may be over, but this discussion is just beginning.  And it all started because a couple of male students were upset that they would have to pay $1 for a cupcake.