WELLESLEY, MASS. -- One of the many traditions at Wellesley College, which opened in 1875 at a time when higher education for women was a radical notion, is something called hoop-rolling. On an early spring day, when New England is just beginning to turn green, students guide wooden hoops with a stick over a course on their elegant campus. It used to be that the woman who got to the finish line first was dubbed the first who would marry. In recent years, the winner is said to be the first who will make a million dollars.

Both fates seem to be regarded with an equal lack of seriousness but the new tradition represents, in a small way, the change in what Wellesley women expect of themselves. The class of 1990 is packing up sweat pants and answering machines, worrying about jobs or grad school or getting a ride to Arizona, knowing that this spring will not soon be forgotten.

As they await Act 3 in this drama -- Friday's commencement address by Barbara Bush -- they can be assured that at least it dealt with important themes. Act 1 featured what appeared to be a small group of seniors objecting -- as many seniors on other campuses have before them -- to the person who was to give the commencement address. They expected a message of advice and inspiration with which they were to leave their snug world "... of unapologetically intelligent women" (as a 1988 graduate put it).

Since the speaker they objected to was the First Lady, and the grounds on which they questioned selecting her were that she was chosen only because of the position of her husband, Act 2 ushered onto the stage everyone and his uncle -- or aunt -- who ever had an opinion about feminism.

The reams of editorials, letters, calls, telegrams from alumnae, talk shows and call-in radio programs, all sparked by what was intended to be a private and almost deferential protest, have prompted a lot of talk about women, feminism and the current buzzwords: changing roles, choices and empowerment. The pundits have weighed in with defenses of Barbara Bush, motherhood, volunteerism and middle age, while a separate, misogynist bunch hurled invective at the young women of Wellesley. ("Spinster tartlets" was one of the more endearing epithets.)

It is no longer possible to figure out how much of the debate was the result of what the Wellesley protesters actually said and how much was reaction to what people thought they said, or wished they had said. On the campus itself -- an exquisite lakeside enclave of green lawns and stone towers -- the discussion for the most part was temperate, in the Wellesley tradition.

The phrases "I respect her opinion but ... " and "she has a right to say whatever she wants, but ... " were repeated frequently during two days of interviews. Not once did anyone suggest that someone else was a jerk (although there were some pointed comments about certain people who thought that anyone who wanted to lose a few pounds was buying into male-imposed stereotypes, and the suggestion that not all the 150 signers of the petition were seniors, as its authors aver).

Outside the campus, the tone was shriller. The Denver Post called the protesters "snobbish little brats" and "wet-nosed upstarts." Mike Barnicle, a columnist for the Boston Globe who fancies himself a spokesman for the working stiff but lives in a posh suburb himself, referred to them as "chicks," "girls," "female persons" and "a pack of whining unshaved feminists." Susana Cardenas, one of the protest organizers, was told to go home to Peru by an anonymous writer who called himself (must have been a he) only "An American."

An alumna wrote the campus newspaper saying, "... this is your grandmother speaking: you are being rude." Another lectured, "If you think a woman who can successfully raise 5 children while following an ambitious husband ... is not a woman of achievement, then you haven't a clue as to how the real world works, nor do you understand the meaning of your liberal arts education. Grow up!"

Wait a minute. What's going on here?

"I guess we touched a nerve," said Peggy Reid, one of the seniors who wrote the petition.

But which nerve? Is it the collective frustrations of working mothers? Is it the pain of non-job-holding mothers who feel their choice was demeaned? The resentment of older people toward questioning youth? The cumulative anger of men who feel forced into letting women into their ballgame and don't really want to share the housework or remember the field trip on Thursday? The confusion of women who are realizing that men want them to do all the things they used to do and learn to change the oil as well? Fear that this small-scale protest, accomplished without placards, strikes, sit-ins or profanity could start a trend that would turn the placid '80s into the tumultuous '90s? A wail of anti-elitism from resentful non-Ivy Leaguers? A sign that Barbara Bush has become some kind of universal mother who spurs even political opponents to issue great screeds of apple pie in her defense?

All of the above?

Protest and Paradox When Reid heard that Barbara Bush was to be the commencement speaker at her graduation, she called her friend Cardenas. "We've got to do something," she said, and that evening they and two other friends batted out a two-paragraph petition that said the undersigned objected to Mrs. Bush because she was known only because her husband was famous, and requested an additional speaker "who would more aptly reflect the self-affirming qualities of a Wellesley graduate."

The next day they made copies of it for each of the 20 Wellesley dorms, and set up a table in the student center to solicit signatures. They deliberately restricted their objections to philosophical issues, rather than political ones such as abortion or party affiliation. And they were careful, they said, not to harass people into signing. They got 150 signatures from among the 632 seniors, about 23 percent of the class.

A week later the whole matter was resolved to their satisfaction (a change in the selection process for future speakers) and they went on spring break. Three weeks after that, they were -- as their commencement speaker's husband used to say -- in deep doodoo.

A brief story by a stringer for the Boston Globe that appeared on an inside page ignited a brush fire of media that left them and many others on campus hurt, confused, angry or, in some cases, quietly delighted.

Let's get one thing straight: Neither Peggy Reid nor Susana Cardenas lacks respect for Barbara Bush or her achievements as a wife, mother and volunteer. They love their mothers (Reid's is a lawyer, Cardenas's is a nurse) and hope to be mothers themselves someday. But, they argue, if Mrs. Bush is being honored by their college for those achievements, there are many other women who are equally accomplished in those areas. The thing that places Mrs. Bush on the list of commencement speakers is her husband. And they question the appropriateness of that choice given the fact that they are expected to achieve on their own.

Previous commencement speakers in their memory -- Michael Dukakis's campaign manager Susan Estrich (who shocked many by talking about having been raped), Gloria Steinem (who was too radical for some and too boring for others), Cabinet member Elizabeth Hanford Dole (seriously dull), Harvard psychologist and feminist Carol Gilligan (also dullsville) -- were all women who fit that category.

"And we don't hate men," said Reid, an Asian religions major. "In fact, I live with a man!" (She lives off campus.)

To thumb through a Wellesley yearbook ("Legenda") is to see the many faces of today's women. There are pictures of "Flower Sunday," when the students attend an interfaith service and seniors give flowers to freshmen; the Asian Association Blind Date Dance; a vigil for the Central Park rape victim, who was an honors graduate; and the 800 women who traveled to Washington for the March for Choice in 1989. "Wendy Wellesley will always include velvet and taffeta in her wardrobe," said one line in an entry about a fashion show.

The interest groups with mailboxes in the student center range from the Girl Scouts to Wellesley Lesbians and Friends, from Madrigal Singers to the Ministry to Black Women. The first woman who will get married after graduation this year is a women's studies major.

It was claimed by several highly reliable sources that more than one student has been seen wearing a suit and heels to class, but there was no evidence of this on a recent visit. Dress was strictly the oversized sweat shirt, baggy sweat pants fashion popular on most campuses. But there must be some reason that the small town of Wellesley supports both a Talbots and a Pappagallo.

The only demonstration expected at commencement is a new tradition: dropping a red carnation at the feet of the head trustee to protest Wellesley's failure to sell their investments in South Africa. If anyone is wearing one of the newly spawned T-shirts, which say on the back "just a bunch of whiny unshaven radical spinster tartlets," it probably will be under her robe.

The debate over the value of single-sex education is a "dead fish" on this campus, in the words of one sociology professor. Going coed was discussed in 1970, said Nancy Agnew, vice president for media relations, and rejected. The school has no shortage of applicants and it accepts fewer than half of those who apply. The college has a healthy endowment, including $107 million of a projected $150 million fund-raising campaign.

Although only one of the 10 women interviewed recently said she had chosen Wellesley because it was all female, after four years on campus the women are glad it is. There are a few men here as part of an exchange program with MIT; they are referred to as coeds. "They usually write something about 'my year at a girls' school' -- and get it published," joked senior Karen Tucker. In general, the women agree with the research that shows that when men are in the classroom they tend to hog the floor and the attention of the professors.

Some spoke of an unnerving sense of competition among classmates along with the sisterhood. "I've heard of people refusing to help you with your homework," said Joansa Lam, a senior from Hong Kong. "I found it more common in the sciences," said Vivian Lo, a psychobiology major. "People who are planning to go to med school are very concerned about ranking. Otherwise it's more something you create within yourself. Like when you're going out on a Friday night and you see a friend going to the library, and you think, 'I should be studying.' " Neither Lam nor Lo chose to sign the petition.

Later, Tucker paused on the way out of her dorm. "Here's a feminist's room," she said, pointing to a door festooned with news clippings, buttons and a strip of the yellow tape police use to mark a restricted area. On Tucker's floor there a number of doors with George Bush bumper stickers (which she, a registered Republican, had distributed) and on one, a bumper sticker that said "I'll Do Anything if You Buy Me a Horse."

"Most students don't know what they want," said Marcellus Andrews, a popular 33-year-old professor of economics. "These are very complicated people. Their parents want a return on their considerable investment, and they want to please their parents -- much to my chagrin. They want material comfort, but not at someone else's expense. They want success, but not at the expense of traditional values relating to family. They are confused about what their expectations should be. ... And they don't get much help from their professors, their parents or the popular culture.

"I can't tell you how many times one of them will come for help on a paper and will end up sitting in that chair talking about men. And it's not stuff about problems with a boyfriend. It's about whether men are going to help solve the problems relating to working and raising a family. ... They are taught that self-determination for women is an absolute value, but what those words mean is left open. ... These are some anxious people."

Andrews, who is one of few black males on campus, was asked by the senior class to give the baccalaureate address, a more informal event that takes place in the chapel the night before graduation. The assigned theme is "illumination." Prompted in part by the Bush debate, he plans to read or reread five books to prepare for his "sermon," ranging from a new biography of Simone de Beauvoir to the book of Isaiah from the Old Testament.

"They are expected to be their family's sons and daughters. Nobody expects a son to be a daughter too. It's a lot to ask," said Susan Reverby, director of the women's studies program. "If you go over to Harvard and interview male seniors, I don't think you'll find them worrying about how they're going to combine work and fatherhood."

Reverby does not use the word "empowerment," which she sees as primarily a way of explaining why women's colleges are needed in the 20th century. And she doesn't like the word "choice" either. "We try to talk about the conditions under which we make choices. Choice is not my word. I can't choose not to work -- it's hard for them to hear that. There are constraints on choice -- class, race, personality. It's not about do I want to stay home or be a lawyer. It's about how do we manage this. And about how we're not doing it very well."

In the same way that the debate about abortion is really about sex, she said, or "about how white males can no longer control their daughters," the debate over whether Barbara Bush is an appropriate speaker for Wellesley College's class of 1990 is really about "who's going to take care of the children? And how are we going to make it?"

Plans & Perspectives

Karen Tucker will be working next year for Arthur Andersen & Co. in computer systems integration. An economics and sociology major, she was on a committee of women who were asked by a dean to respond to a request from Mrs. Bush's speech writers about what she should talk about.

"The consensus was she should talk about whatever she wanted to say," said Tucker. "We didn't want to tell her what to say. But we did say we'd be interested in hearing about how the decisions she made reflect in our decisions, about women's changing roles, and to leave politics out."

Tucker defines herself as a feminist in the sense that she fully intends to take her place in the marketplace. "I don't have any anger that there are discriminatory barriers," she said. "Anger isn't going to help. You have to go out there and prove yourself."

She didn't sign the petition either, and thinks it was "poorly written and unfair." Mrs. Bush, she said, was chosen through a democratic process, and even though Tucker would have preferred Margaret Thatcher and was not thrilled with the class's first choice of Alice Walker, she wouldn't have complained about it. As it turned out, Walker first accepted, but in December the class got a letter from her bowing out, pleading residual stress from the San Francisco earthquake, her daughter's car accident and preoccupation with her work.

"People were teased with the prospect of Alice Walker and suddenly it's a polar opposite," said Tucker's friend Lisa Mallenbaum.

"They yelled at us {senior reps} a lot because they didn't understand the system," added Tucker.

They, and their friend Lo, are delighted to have Mrs. Bush. "I think she's a good speaker, and she's gone through so much," said Mallenbaum.

The idea that the commencement speaker could be someone who was not famous seemed an odd one to them. "I'm sure there are wonderful women out there {who aren't famous} but how would we find out about them?" said Lo. The suggestion made by Reid and Cardenas to have a welfare mother give the commencement address left them quite cold.

"People want to hear someone who's comfortable with who she is," said Mallenbaum. "Not a downer. We've worked hard to get to this day, and we want to hear someone to inspire us, not to make us feel the world is hopeless."

Two weeks before ending their college years, the women were finishing their last assignments. Next year, Cardenas will work for a human rights organization in Washington. She has completed an honors thesis called "Latin American Literature in the Struggle for Social Justice and Human Rights."

She admits to being surprised that more classmates didn't sign the petition. "Some didn't understand the point, some were apathetic, some thought it was a fait accompli and took a defeatist position," she said. "We could have articulated our position better."

They did not succeed in getting an additional speaker for commencement. (Raisa Gorbachev, a surprise bonus to be delivered by Mrs. Bush, wasn't what they had in mind.) But they did succeed in changing the process. Next year, after the first round of nominations is whittled to 20, there will be another vote by the senior class to select the first choices.

"It probably isn't important to anyone outside of Wellesley, but we got the system changed," Cardenas said. Now that the hate mail and the phone calls from Australian newspapers and radio talk shows that don't tell you they're live has died down, she can look back and feel proud of the whole episode.

"We provided a forum," she said. "It was a learning process," said Reid.