Climate Control: A New Phase in PC Feminism

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August 20th, the
State Journal

reported on what appears to be the next phase of politically correct
feminism in academia. According to Jo Handelsman, who is quoted
in the article, "The ‘climate initiative’ is the next generation
of ways to raise awareness of what makes a supportive and productive
working environment." Handelsman is a former chairwoman of
the Committee on Women at the University of Wisconsin (UW) at Madison – a
campus well known for its cutting-edge left radicalism, especially
in the area of feminism.

is the climate initiative? UW System President Katharine Lyall explains,
"The issues that concern our women faculty and staff today
have evolved from ‘first order’ issues of getting policies and practices
in place to ‘second order’ concerns of campus climate and the thousand
small things that make a workplace friendly and supportive."
And, although the term may provoke dismissive laughter, it is no
more implausible than "hostile working environment" – a
phrase once laughable that is now enshrined into laws and policies

– in specific terms – constitutes the behaviors that are
targets of PC feminism’s second order concern? A report from the
Committee on Women in May, entitled "Climate Initiative –
A Springboard for Discussion," described them as "a category
of communications – verbal and nonverbal – that create
a distance between the speaker and the recipient." They are
communications that make another person feel "separated from
colleagues or peers" in his or her day-to-day working relationships.
Such feelings of separation need not be the result of another’s
malice or conscious intention. Indeed, the report continues, "These
reminders of a person’s ‘place’ or ‘role’ or ‘status’ generally
are subtle, not malicious or willful…" The report becomes
no more specific on the definition of climate, which is acknowledged
to be "vague."

call for climate control comes on the heels of an intensive study
conducted by the Committee on the Status of Women in the UW System.
According to the Committee, the UW has been successful in hiring
more women in ‘underrepresented’ fields, such as science, and in
closing the gap in pay between the women and men. According to the
student newspaper the Badger
, the year-long study found that "the total number
of female faculty has grown from 19 percent to 28 percent. Also,
women have gone from being just under half of the student body to
now making up 55 percent of all students in the system." Instead
of applauding such impressive strides, the Committee on Women has
used the study as a springboard for the "next generation"
of measures to ensure gender sensitivity.

measures call into question forms of "communication" that
are openly acknowledged to be both legal and within existing university
policy. Handelsman observes, "There are behaviors, like staring
at breasts or making crude jokes, that pretty much everyone can
agree isn’t appropriate…" Climate initiative refers to "communication"
that falls into "this huge gray area in between" what
is clearly appropriate and what is clearly not. It refers to behavior
that may be "OK for some people and not for others."

those who are horrified at the prospect of policies built around
such vagueness, the Committee on Women quickly point out that they
are calling only for a discussion of climate control, not for punitive
action against climate violations. Handelsman declares, " We’re
not telling people how to behave…. What we want is an environment
where people are aware of the ramifications of their actions."
Given the track record of Women’s Studies Departments across the
nation in supporting the forceful imposition of ‘sensitivity’, this
non-punitive approach is unlikely to last more than a year.


1) UW
at Madison, along with the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis,
is in the forefront of academic institutions that set precedents
in the area of ‘gender justice.’ And precedents are not set through
discussion but through bold action.

2) This
September marks the 25th anniversary of the women’s
studies program at UW, which means the department will be riding
the crest of a wave. Events celebrating womanhood will provide
secure and sympathetic podiums from which to call for decisive
action on climate control. Moreover, the much lauded anniversary
cries out for the announcement of a new phase or a new vision
of feminism on campus.

3) Among
the findings of the aforementioned Status of Women study was a
provocative tidbit. Almost 40 percent of the UW faculty are expected
to retire by the year 2008. This offers a unique opportunity for
PC voices to gain numerical dominance within the faculty and control
university policy for decades.

4) PC
factions at UW have reason to feel encouraged. Following vicious
non-stop criticism of how he handled anti-sweatshop protests and
the arrest of sit-in protestors in February, on March 17th
Chancellor David Ward suddenly announced his resignation effective
January 1st, 2001. Although he denied being influenced
by the campus backlash, the Badger Herald gloated, "many
insiders have revealed the weekly criticism of his actions in
this column eroded the Regents’ confidence in his ability to ‘lead
UW into the new millennium.’"

5) Thus,
as well as 40 percent of the faculty being up for grabs, the Chancellery
itself will soon be vacant. The campaign to find a suitable replacement
began in May and is estimated to take five or six months. In other
words, it will be in full swing this fall at the same moment the
Women’s Studies Department is thrust into prominence through the
celebration of its 25th Anniversary. What are the odds
that the new Chancellor will take a stand against PC feminist
at that juncture?

waters are being tested at UW-Madison in order to launch “the next
generation,” “the second order” of sensitivity and diversity as
narrowly defined by dogmatic feminists. The climate for freedom
of speech and true diversity at UW is likely to become very chilly

UW campus may bear witness to the potent anti-PC backlash that is
becoming evident across the nation. Last year, UW made history by
becoming the first university to voluntarily abolish a speech code
and replace it with nothing but a declaration of free speech rights.
The libertarian Prof. Lester Hunt now chairs the committee that
oversees the office that investigates complaints of harassment and
discrimination – the very people who used to enforce the obsolete
speech code.

fall semester at UW will be the scene of an intriguing political
dance between PC and anti-PC forces. To the outside observer, the
circumstances clearly favor climate control. But the salutary and
retrogressive likes of Lester Hunt should not be underappreciated.
Perhaps PC feminism will be revealed as an idea whose time has come…and

29, 2000

McElroy is author of The
Reasonable Woman
. See more of her work at
and at her personal website.

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