A Brief History of the Panty Raid

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27 May

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By Adam Welsch
TC® Fine Intimates

Though referenced repeatedly in American pop culture over the past 25 years or so (as in the 1984 movie, Revenge of the Nerds), the panty raid as a living, organized, mass prank has joined the likes of goldfish swallowing and phone-booth stuffing as something found only in history books.  As a result, most people today have either forgotten, or never known, that the panty raid fad of the 1950s and 1960s was more than mere campus fun – it was serious, front-page news.

What were panty raids?  Simply put, they were organized incursions by groups of male college students into all-female collegiate residences (dormitories or sororities).  Panties and other intimate apparel were sought as “trophies,” proof that the guys had momentarily crossed a societal barrier and occupied the forbidden territory of a co-ed’s bedroom.  And though many times unwelcomed, raids were often carried out with the encouragement, and even assistance, of the co-eds themselves.

What gave rise to the phenomenon of the panty raid?  There’s no definitive answer, though sociologists point to the confluence of three factors.  First, though women were attending college in ever higher numbers, many schools were still of the all-male or all-female variety, and those that were “co-ed” maintained single-sex residences.  The sexual revolution of the mid-to-late 1960s had yet to take place, and society’s conventions still made it difficult for unmarried guys and girls attending college to act on the impulses of young adulthood.  Second, the Cold War in general, and the Korean War in particular, created a certain air of unease among male college students, as the inevitability of military service weighed on many minds.  And third, society’s rules in general, and those of college administrators in particular, were far less permissive than those of today.  These factors contributed to a general restlessness that sought expression at a time before the widespread, mass, counterculture protests of the mid-to-late 1960s were available.

It’s likely that the first panty raid took place in 1949 at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.  The Woman’s Building had experienced isolated raids by male students in its previous two decades.  But, on February 25, perhaps inspired by the military training many had received in World War II, about 120 male students successfully invaded the girl’s dorm after cutting its electricity and phone lines.  The women likely had some advance warning of the attack, allowing some to spray large amounts of perfume on the raiders in hopes that it would help identify the culprits later on.  Beds were overturned and co-eds were pushed into showers, but the only “casualty” was one man who said he was “hit on the head with a chair.”  Though the goal of the raid was not to steal panties, some of the female students did report that some underwear was taken.  After the raid, it was determined that the guys had some help from “the other side.”  A housemother for one of the guys’ dorms advised her boys to double-lock the apartment of the Woman’s Building’s housemother; also, one of the residents of the Woman’s Building (who later married one of the plot’s organizers) made sure to leave the dorm’s cafeteria door unlocked.  The event was reported by the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, and Time Magazine.  Though initially referred to as a “riot,” the event was a later described by the Moline Daily Dispatch as a “panty raid.”

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The panty raid became a fad in 1952 after the next incident occurred at the University of Michigan.  On the first temperate night of spring, a battle of competing noises among various men’s dorms devolved into an outdoor showdown among hundreds of male students.  After staring down police, the crowd turned its restlessness outward and moved through several women’s dorms where men were normally not allowed to freely enter.  At Alice Lloyd Hall, the co-eds locked the main doors in response, but the crowd entered through side doors, stormed rooms, and took “items of lingerie as souvenirs,” according to a story in The Detroit News.  Unlike the incident at Augustana College, this event was unwelcomed by the female students.  In retaliation that night, a group of co-eds entered the front door of the Student Union without escorts, flouting the longstanding rules of tradition.  Eventually, it started to rain and the commotion came to an end.

Over the next couple of months of 1952, the panty raid craze spread to more than 50 college campuses around the country.  Experiences varied by location.  At Penn State for example, when 2000 male students closed in on the women’s dorms, the women cheered them on and actually threw underwear to the crowd from windows.  However, at the University of Washington, 1000 male students broke windows and stormed dorms and sororities chanting, “We want panties!”

Panty raids continued on college campuses across the country for the next decade or so.  One, at the University of Nebraska in early 1955, ended with the suspension of seven students; another, at the University of California at Berkley in May of 1956, involved 3000 male students and caused $10,000 worth of damage.

Of course, all fads eventually burn themselves out.  By the late 1960s, changing attitudes about sex, rule changes on college campuses, and the availability of other outlets for social protest led to the end of the panty raid as a mass, organized activity.

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