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Night Moves

May 20, 1952


Chanting “Rally! Rally!” about 50 youthfully energetic male undergraduates massed outside Green Hall (present-day Lippincott Hall) on this warm May evening in 1952, plotting entrance into several girls’ dormitories for the singular purpose of stealing panties.

Once assembled on this site where KU Law students had regularly made catcalls at women passersby, the group moved down Tennessee Street, attracting hundreds more men, all seeking what the University Daily Kansan called “unmentionable trophies.” Soon the rowdy mob numbered 1,500, making it the largest panty raid in University of Kansas history.

The crowd was quite a sight; it alarmed some sorority residents enough to summon the Lawrence police, only to find out that the men in blue believed their presence might further incite the mob. By midnight the boisterous crowd had attempted raids on seven women’s houses, though locked doors and secured windows thwarted most of the panty raiding forays. Meanwhile, more determined men swung from balconies, climbed downspouts, unhinged doors, and even broke windows in an attempt to enter the women’s buildings, eventually gaining entry to one dormitory and the Alpha Delta Pi and Pi Beta Phi sorority houses.

But not all the excitable male undergraduates who prowled the streets that night participated in the raiding. One squad from Delta Tau Delta fraternity gallantly (if perhaps selfishly) guarded freshman women by repelling an early attempt to enter one residence hall. A few raiders were reduced to shouting, “We want falsies” outside the Alpha Chi Omega house. Eventually, as the night reached deep into the early morning hours, the mob petered out. Moreover, the raiders managed very few trophies; indeed, only one pink brassiere was lost to the invading mob.

The start of panty raiding at KU had its antecedents a few days earlier, when a group of mischievous women from Watkins Hall made off with some items from two men’s dormitories – a sign from Stephenson Hall and a chair from Battenfeld Hall. They subsequently sent the boys a poetic confession revealing that the stolen articles were located in a third floor bathroom at Watkins, and teasingly urged them to try to retrieve their merchandise. The men responded quickly, and on the night of May 19 broke into Watkins and several other halls, stealing personal items. “The girls who were unfortunate enough to have washed [their undergarments] last night lost almost everything they had,” complained one resident of Miller Hall. The next day campus was abuzz with rumors about future panty raids, and that night – May 20, 1952 – the large mob struck.

What explains this sudden early-1950s fascination with stealing women’s panties? Can it be ascribed to benign silliness and understood as an immature prank? Or were the raids symptomatic of widespread sexual frustration expressed through mildly criminal behavior? When asked about that spring’s panty raids, famed sex researcher Alfred Kinsey shrugged them off with the comment, “All animals play around.”

Historian Beth Bailey in Sex in the Heartland, argues that panty raids were only one part of larger youthful challenges to established social norms. Whatever the explanation, KU was one of dozens of schools across the country that experienced panty raids in the spring of 1952. At the University of Wisconsin, 5,000 male students, encouraged by bugle calls, charged women’s dormitories. Other schools moved to quash the panty raid fad through harsh reprisals. Panty-raiding students battled against police at the University of Oklahoma; in Missouri governor Forrest Smith dispatched the National Guard to control the 2,000 panty raiders that prowled the Columbia campus.

At Kansas, University officials moved quickly to thwart further incidents. KU Chancellor Franklin D. Murphy issued a strongly worded statement that warned, “Any student committing an overt act in inciting or participating in an attack on women’s houses or forcing entrance will be held responsible not only for any damage done but for his actions in an extra-legal activity.” Yet the chancellor’s bark may have been worse than his bite; only one student, who had been in repeated trouble, was suspended for panty raid behavior. The University Daily Kansan was even more sanguine, noting that college students had always participated in preposterous pranks. “Therefore,” editorialized the paper, “it is with a soft chuckle rather than with a deeply furrowed brow that we accept these goings-on.”

The phenomenon of panty raiding (the Kansan termed it “pantyraid-itis” in 1954) quieted down after the spring of 1952, but undergraduate women faced the plundering of their underwear at least two other times. Panty raids struck KU’s campus in the spring of 1956 when a group of nearly 1,000 students spent a night of entirely unsuccessful raiding. Chancellor Murphy met the mob and attempted to reason with them; though unsuccessful he acerbically characterized the raids as “a mild spring outbreak.” Others dealt with panty raiders more forcefully. During the raiders’ attempt on the Tri Delt house, the housemother, Mrs. W.S. Shaw, fended off the invaders with a baseball bat.

Perhaps due to their lack of success at KU, a few weeks later panty raiders turned their sights to Baker University. Yet this raid also proved largely unsuccessful. About 50 students attempted to pillage the Baldwin school’s Alpha Chi Omega sorority, only to be repelled by sorority sisters who blocked entrance to their stairwell with their arms crossed. Other girls refused to give up their clothes, with at least one garment being torn in the tug of war between its owner and a determined raider. “The men weren’t very well organized,” noted one of the girls. Several raiders were arrested, and four wound up in jail.

A smaller, more successful panty raid occurred in early October of 1969. The raid began after a dance at Templin hall flopped; a frustrated group of Templin men, quickly joined by male residents of Ellsworth and McCollum attacked Lewis, McCollum, and Naismith halls, shouting, “We want silk!” As they collected the undergarments that women threw from their windows, many members of the mob tied the underwear to their head or tucked it into their waistbands.

As with earlier raids, the intended victims generally thwarted the raiders. After dropping bras to the mob outside their windows, many women followed with a bucketful or two of water. Despite the dousing, one jubilant raider claimed he traded a bra for a date with a GSP resident. Campus reaction to the raids was largely muted; the Kansan drolly suggested that if raids must occur, they should be given guidelines sponsored by Student Senate and the raiders given their own yell leaders. “But such guidelines will probably not be needed,” advised the Kansan; “the return of cold weather will force the panty-raid back to its grave where it will lie until again resurrected by some restless, energetic males.”

Kevin Armitage
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: the University Daily Kansan provided the best coverage of the panty raids. See the following issues: Monday, May 19, 1952, p. 2; Tuesday May 20, 1952 p. 1; Wednesday May 21, 1952 p. 1; Thursday, Oct. 28, p. 2; Thursday October 28, 1954, p. 2; Friday May 18, 1956, p. 1; Tuesday May 22, 1956, p. 1; Thursday October 2, 1969, 13; Friday October 14 1969, p. 5. See also the Lawrence Daily Journal World May 21, 1952. See also “Panty Raids” (dean’s memo) May 30, 1952 in the Dean of Men’s Problems and Discipline files, Kansas University Archives, Spencer Research Library. For greater context and also a specific report on KU, see Beth Bailey’s Sex in the Heartland (Harvard University Press, 1999).]