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Parietal Protection from your Alma Mater
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Although a tireless collector of obscure verbiage since early childhood, I had never heard the word "parietal" used to describe anything but bones, lobes, and viscera. When I arrived at college, however, I was confronted with an odd but ubiquitous usage of this arcane adjective. There I discovered that "parietal" could mean "living within, or having to do with life within, a college" (Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary, Unabridged, Second edition, circa 1959, p.1303).

W hen I was a freshman in 1965, parietal rules were designed to keep female students safe from their male counterparts, unfettered creatures generally expected to behave like hyperactive hormones. Parietals required that when two people of opposite sexes were together in a room, three feet had to remain on the floor at all times. Although this might have led to an interesting interlude, the rules also stated unequivocally that the door had to remain ajar at a 45 degree angle. In the same spirit, women had to sign out of the dorm every evening, an exercise that soon had most coeds recording escapades to Disneyland or Oz. Men, of course, had no restrictions, no curfews, and no need to register their callow capers.

Resident Assistants (mostly Anthropology grad students who often resembled the anomalies they researched) guarded our comings and goings in greater detail than Dr. Kinsey. Things were not much different at B.U., where the university allowed coeds to wear trousers only in arctic weather below 15 degrees. There, too, male students had no such regulations. Burgeoning Mel Gibsons or Ru Pauls could select their skirts or slacks by whimsy, not weather.

I had never been to college before. For a mercifully short time, I was pure, punctilious, and apolitical. Like Chinese women who hobbled for centuries with painfully bound feet, my dorm-mates and I annotated our assignations without question. We returned, often with reluctance and occasionally with relief, by the stroke of midnight. In our dorm, the first to break curfew was gutsy and wonderful Lil. Like detectives, clad in quilts and ruffles, we waited for her in the communal lounge. When she returned smiling and sober, we rushed her off for the mandatory debriefing. She was grounded, of course, but her bravery set us free.

Finally, after millennia of stultification, women around the world (and even on some New England college campuses) began to wake up. Students staged a parietal revolt. Men and women, dating or not, paired up one evening, shut their dormroom doors, and elevated four or occasionally eight of all participating legs. Some chose to be found "in flagrante", albeit with the requisite number of legal footfalls. The concept of university as "alma mater" was shaken to its very foundation garments. Parietal rules and curfews were demolished post-haste with irony and nonviolence. After 1965, the only vestige of gender discrimination at Brandeis involved separate gym class and the required shout of "Man on the Floor" when males entered a women's residence hall (aka girls' dorm). Although restrictive and sexist, I never minded this outdated regulation. In fact, every time I heard the holler, I enjoyed the image. If only...

When I brought my daughter to college this year, I was glad she would be living in a coed dorm. It might be nice, I mused, to meet men as people instead of only as potential dates. She would never have to heed her grandmother's warning not to act "too smart" on a date. My daughter would be luckier, I thought. She would engage before she engaged. Of course, I did buy her a terrycloth shower robe which obliterated every evidence of epidermis from head to toe and was relieved to see that all men and all women had keys to their own single-sex lavatories. (One of my friends faced a greater challenge. Her daughter chose a college with coed facilities. CK 1 may defy gender, but it's hard to feel unisex about a urinal.)

I visited my daughter at mid-semester, wondering what I'd see when she buzzed me into coed heaven late one evening. After all, it's one thing to observe college life from an empirical stance; another to see who's being comforted in your daughter's comforter. Actually, I was delighted with what I found. Young men and women, the epitomes of adolescent omniscience, were scattered all over each other in identical flannel pajamas. Books and bagels covered beds and bodies while stereos blared. Some people were actually studying while others used the halls as impromptu runways for the J.Crew Underwear Catalogue. Thirty years earlier, when I introduced a boy to my mother, she went right home to have the invitations engraved. That night, however, my daughter introduced me to countless Seths, Adams and Joshuas, with a few Jennifers and Rachels thrown in for good measure. Coed dorms work. They generate a real-life atmosphere where all kinds of people live, work, study, cry, laugh and learn together.

My daughter and her friends cringe when they hear the word "feminism". They don't believe it's simply a synonym for equality. Often I feel frustrated when they don't appreciate the changes we fought for. But I fell asleep that night with a big smile on my face. Thirty years before, we had burned not only bras, but bridges. The new ones being built encourage everyone to cross. No hobbling allowed.

Written by Marcia Brown Rubinstien
February 21, 1998

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