BOSTON -- For one memorable day last Friday, any ruffled feelings among the Wellesley College class of 1990 and their commencement day speaker were excised like crab grass from the lush college campus. For one polite morning, the focus was on diplomas and de'tente. De'tente between capitalists and communists, between students and first ladies, between Barbara Bush and Raisa Gorbachev.
The only hint of a rejoinder to the young protesters in Mrs. Bush's deftly recycled e-z listening speech were in her remarks about ''too little tolerance'' for people who didn't fit the stereotypes of women -- the old ones or the new.
The only mention of women's roles in Mrs. Gorbachev's Central Committee text was about their ''special mission.'' ''Always, even in the most cruel and terrible times,'' she said, ''women have had the mission of peacemaking, humaneness, mercy and kindness.'' She sounded more like Mother Russia than Ms. Perestroika.
As for the students, those who had objected to the choice of a spouse as speaker wore their protest primly. Purple armbands honored the ''unknown women who have dedicated their lives to the service of others.''
So, Mrs. Bush concluded, ''The controversy is over.'' But that was optimistic. Before the limousine had even left Boston, the story had picked up again. More reams of copy and reels of videotape were filled with the debate about Barbara Bush as role model.
As a devoted media watcher, I have devised a list of reasons during the past month why this story took on a life of its own. But in one way or another, it seems to me that the Wellesley tale fit everybody's favorite ''take'' on the debate over women's roles. It cast this issue as a controversy of, by and between women. A single-sex debate that had nothing to do with men.
The Wellesley story fit the most popular scenario of social change: see these young (uppity) women trashing the older (virtuous) women. More to the point, it reinforced our favorite image that this is a fight (dare I say ''cat fight'') between the CEO and the mommy, the woman at the office and at home.
Men are not only being left out of this great debate. They are being let off the hook.
Women do take these issues more seriously, more personally. This is a moment in social change when half the mothers of pre-schoolers are in the work force, and half are at home. Those at home feel vulnerable to charges of brain-neglect, that all they worry about is waxy, yellow buildup on the linoleum. Those at work feel vulnerable to charges of child neglect: Are you sure the baby sitter isn't a child abuser?
It has become easier to blame the "other women" for those feelings -- to blame the "other mother" for feelings of inadequacy rather than a husband, or an amorphous ''society.'' In Newsweek, a full-page piece was written about Mommy versus Mommy without recording a single male voice.
But I submit that it's at least as likely to be a man at a dinner who turns away uninterested when he finds out your job title is mother. It's at least as likely to be a husband, father or male co-worker who intimates that the kids might be happier, smarter, healthier if you were home with them. It is most assuredly a men's magazine, Esquire, that this month poses ''the last American Housewife'' happily cleaning a toilet. And it is, in all likelihood, a man setting the corporate or federal policy that exaggerates these conflicts.
As long as men are exempt from this argument, as long as they remain a single-sex seminar about women's options, women's decisions, we are going to stay stuck.
So one other commencement note from the Wellesley class of 1990. Those young protesters, bashed for weeks by the press, replaced their petition with a polite plea to the First Lady. They asked her to speak up, even to the First Man, on behalf of an agenda, from parental leave to pay equity, that would indeed make these choices easier.
Not a bad thing for women to bring back from their own separate summit. We all could use a bit of perestroika.