BOSTON -- When the news came that Mills College would not be accepting men, there were cheers and champagne all across the Oakland campus. The young women in their counterrevolutionary T-shirts -- ''Better Dead than Coed'' -- had won the day. They had been temporarily saved from that fate worse than death.
But on the other coast, this observer suffered from a case of deja vu. Where had I seen those T-shirts before? Just last month, on the all-male campus of Virginia Military Institute.
What would I say if the students of VMI were to pop champagne bottles and celebrate victory against the lawsuit to admit women to that male bastion? I would call it a defeat.
So the Mills College case raises more than a few questions about the battle for equality. Is there a double standard being raised on the field?
I don't want to press the analogy between VMI and Mills College too far. VMI is a tax-supported institution and public money is being used by a school that excludes citizens on the basis of sex. Mills College is private.
But over the past decade, in the name of equality, some who favor admitting women to male colleges have also fervently argued against admitting men to female colleges. The defenders of women's institutions describe their campuses as oases in a sexist society. They say that the attention and encouragement women receive there make them better equipped to go into the world on an equal footing with men.
A good deal of research is mustered to support their belief that all-women's environments may produce more than their share of scientists, professionals, leaders. And if that is true, the double standard may actually be a double path to the same goal. Men's colleges may be bastions of male tradition, while women's colleges are on the front lines of feminist change.
I understand these arguments. In women's classes, women do all the talking. On women's campuses, they hold all the leadership positions. Indeed, when women's colleges go coed, they seem to lose that edge.
But nevertheless it occurs to me these days that the ringing defense of women's colleges has a separatist clang to it. The argument carries the sounds of discouragement with the pace of change in coed institutions, perhaps even with the possibility of equality in the world. These days, do many prefer the cloister -- some variation on the theme of the mommy track?
Susan Rieger, a legal studies professor who calls herself ''the honorable opposition'' at all-female Mount Holyoke college, says: ''I think the ideology is mostly patronizing. It says, if we put you into a classroom with men you aren't going to do as well. You aren't going to edit the newspaper. You are going to be discouraged from science.'' Ironically, she says, that message grows stronger as the evidence may be growing weaker, as more women succeed in coed schools.
Women's colleges were founded because women were barred from most colleges. Today, only a handful of schools exist for men only. But the early and eager assumption that equal admissions would produce an instant equal environment has led to disappointment and impatience.
Indeed, the notion has emerged among some that if a woman goes to a coed school she will automatically -- dare I say naturally -- remain a second-class citizen. There is a suggestion in the sales pitch that she is better off with her own kind.
''Separatism has become more attractive in the past few years,'' says Wendy Kaminer, who has written about this in ''A Fearful Freedom.'' ''The notion that for whatever reasons we can't be equal in the same place at the same time reflects some resignation that I don't share.''
Nor do I. The discouragement with change and the goal of equality is premature. And defeatist. There are, after all, only 125,000 women attending 94 women's colleges. These schools can remain a lively alternative. But the most important work is to change the learning environment on campuses where the vast majority of women go to school with men.
Mills College, neither dead nor coed, has raised some lively issues about equality even among its own defenders. Consider the role of Warren Hellman, the chairman of the board. In the past, Hellman quit two all-male clubs because they refused to admit women. Last week, he announced that Mills would remain male-free. Both times he was applauded by women.