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Equal dorm rules and the simple `joys' of maidenhood

LATELY, whenever my college-freshman daughter wants a good laugh, she asks me to tell her about the Old Days. They were those dark ages of the early 1960s when rules - lots and lots of rules - haunted the life of many college women like a loud tut-tut. As a student at my alma mater, my daughter finds it hard to believe that young women of my generation were required to sign in and out of the dorm every evening.

She is incredulous that we had to be in bed, with lights out, at 11 o'clock on weeknights. And she is amused that the only members of the opposite sex allowed beyond the living room were repairmen and visiting fathers.

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Above all, she cannot understand why these rules were so unequally applied - why many college women across the country had housemothers and curfews and penalties, while college men had no such time restrictions - and certainly no housefathers.

As part of a generation of girls who have grown up taking equality for granted, she considers this double standard positively medieval.

I explain that the rules imposed on women in private colleges then were largely a product of the times, rather than the whim of overprotective or punitive administrators. This was, after all, before the women's movement, the civil rights movement, and the student demonstrations of the late '60s.

I also point out that the rules, for all their restrictiveness, offered some advantages. For parents, there was security in knowing that their daughters were under the watchful eye and protective wing of college officials, acting in loco parentis.

At the same time, for many of those daughters, the rules brought a sense of order and regularity to an experience that was sometimes anything but predictable. They knew exactly what was expected of them, and exactly what would happen if they didn't live up to those expectations.

But if the rules imposed order, they also reinforced a broader societal message - that young women were not mature enough to make their own decisions and be responsible for their own lives. They were hothouse flowers - they were girls.

Not long after my own graduation in the mid-'60s, cataclysmic social changes reduced those college rule books to rubble. Double standards were out, at least on paper and often in fact. Young women were free to make choices - and to make mistakes - like young men until, like my daughter, everybody took the revolution for granted.

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One generation's hard-won privileges quickly become the next generation's inalienable rights.

But wait - hang on for a little time travel in reverse. Suddenly many eyes across the nation are on Boston University this fall as administrators prepared to impose strict new rules limiting late-night or overnight guests in dormitories.

It is, ironically, the old convention that seems like a heresy - and the debate is on, among students, faculty, parents, and just plain bystanders, as if the whole country were seeing this as a symbolic issue.

It is as though two generations, not one, separate me from my daughter. If I was brought up on the old yin of restraint, the yang of unrestrained freedom has come and gone, and my daughter and her generation are left to grapple with something else, neither new nor old.

If it balances off the old opposites - respect for society vs. respect for the individual - and ends up with something like responsibility as an act of free choice, the present confrontation may be worth it.

Should the nation's colleges and universities revert to more stringent policies, students who object can at least take comfort in knowing that this time the rules will be applied on a genderless basis.

And for us mothers from the old days, that will make all the difference.

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