Climate Control: A New Phase in PC Feminism

by Wendy McElroy

On August 20th, the Wisconsin 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.

What 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 nationwide.

What – 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."

The 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 Herald, 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.

The 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."

For 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.

Here's why:

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?

The 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 indeed.

Or...the 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.

The 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 passed.

August 29, 2000

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

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