These Panty-Seeking College Boys Lit the Fuse on the 1960s 50 Years Ago This Week

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May 9 2013 4:20 PM

The Guerrilla Skirmishes of the Sexual Revolution

Fifty years ago this week, panty-seeking college boys lit the fuse on the 1960s.

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The first significant stand-alone panty raid swung into action at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., at a quarter to 1 in the morning on Feb, 25, 1949. The Augustana incident isn’t strictly representative of the form; it had the character of military action (as when the vandals conspired to cut the power lines leading to relevant dorm and solicit the collusion of a housemother). Still, the Chicago Tribune’s front-page response—"Students Don Masks, Invade Rooms of Sleeping Co-Eds"—suggested a template for newspaper editors who wanted to have their sensationalism and stoke a moral panic too: The paper claimed that some of the girls "became hysterical,” and for balance reported that "others were heard calling out windows, 'Help! Police! Isn't this wonderful?' "

The first proper, impromptu panty raid came on March 20, 1952, and the account of the alumni magazine of the University of Michigan depicts all the classic tropes. After dinner on a warmish weeknight—57 degrees in Ann Arbor—a junior picked up his trumpet and tootled a bit of Glenn Miller from his window, just to relax. A trombone responded from an adjacent quad, and two tubas, and students started yelling at the instrumentalists to shut up. A general racket gathered, and soon 600 guys were milling around. The arrival of campus security provided further stimulant. Michigan Today anatomizes the environment:

“Stop here and review the ingredients: a) the first comfortable night outdoors in four or five months; b) a great deal of ambient noise; d) a strict code of rules forbidding unsupervised mixing of the sexes; and d) hundreds of 18-, 19- and 20-year-old males.”

Boys raced through girls’ dorms, and the girls attempted a counter-trespass, and 2,500 kids ran lightly amok, until at 1 a.m. it started to rain, wetting the fuse just as things threatened to turn incendiary. A witness recalled the fun and games beginning to degrade “into unpleasant demonstrations of near-viciousness.”

In 1952, Michigan’s case of spring fever went viral, and that May it swept the nation like an epidemic afflicting a majority of the undergraduate institutions you’ve ever heard of. Minnesota, Missouri, Barnard, Vanderbilt, Kansas, Florida, Nebraska, Iowa, Purdue, Alabama, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Vermont, and so on. All over the place, boys stormed girls’ dorms, damaging property while demonstrating impropriety. The phenomenon peaked on May 21, when a survey of wire reports indicated “in the last 24 hours, an estimated 12 thousand students raided women’s dormitories on at least 11 of the nation’s campuses.” Ask your grandma to be sure, but it appears that the tenor of the true ’50s panty raid tended more toward reciprocal consensual flirtation than attempted sexual assault. Surely a broad range of impulses made themselves felt. Asked for his take, Alfred Kinsey observed, “All animals play around.”

In her social history Sex in the Heartland, Beth Bailey takes care to distinguish this kind of nonsense from the sort of organized student activism that argued against strict curfews and parietal rules. “Panty raids were in the tradition of carnival, not of revolution,” she writes. And yet the point remains that “campus panty raids subverted middle-class mores and defied the authority of adults.”

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Imagine being the typical 20-year-old American-male college student in May of 1952. You have come of age in the new era of the American teenager. You are living in close quarters with thousands of peers amid a campus boom made possible by the GI Bill. Whether you study rocket science or history, you are being trained to win the Cold War. You are eligible to be drafted to kill and die in Korea, but you cannot vote, and you cannot spend the night with your girlfriend, and you cannot console yourself by rocking out to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” because Mick Jagger is still 8 years old. Which is not even to mention that homosexuality is grounds for expulsion. You have been waiting for spring. You have been studying Robert Herrick in English lit. The leaves are on the trees. The sun is in the leaves. The personal is the political, but there aren’t yet any second-wave feminists to say so. The sap is rising in the trunk. The panty-raider’s pursuit of unmentionables is sometimes a conscious act of political speech, sometimes the unconscious expression of teen lust in a repressive climate.

There was never again a panty-raid season like ’52, though isolated incidents of like behavior became a feature of college life. By and large, the tone was of the rumpus, but now and then, a ruckus broke out. On Wednesday, May 16, 1956, temperatures in Berkeley reached above 90 degrees, and at the University of California, the frat-house water fights of the smoggy afternoon led first to good-natured after-dark frolicking and then, after hours, to belligerent groping and general hysteria. Guns were drawn, and battle lines. The Chronicle’s headline: “2,000 At UC Go On Wild Spree.”

That was Berkeley’s first panty raid. Chancellor Clark Kerr’s 33-page white paper on the affair concluded that (contrary to the reports of Newsweek) no women had been disrobed, but estimated losses of $12,000 in damaged property and stolen underwear. Kerr convinced a donor to kick in $300,000 for a new pool, and he cautiously anticipated a peaceful future, as in these remarks quoted by Seth Rosenfeld: “I have considerable confidence that the current generation of students at Berkeley will not again engage in such activities.” He added: “It is perhaps too optimistic to believe that there will never be another major mass disturbance by Berkeley students.”

***

There are nine colleges with traditions of campus revolution predating the American Revolution. It happens that May 3, 1963 saw the Harvard Crimson recap that school’s history of insurrection; in 1780, the Tory student body forced the resignation of the university’s Loyalist president—but mostly there were tantrums about cafeteria gruel, which occasioned mock-epic poems about month-long food fights. Once a century or so, Yale has an out-of-hand snowball fight. Everybody knows about the animals at Dartmouth.

And all of these things were happening at good schools. The long and dense tradition of rogue behavior at Princeton is such a marvel partly because the school, despite the best efforts of Woodrow Wilson, didn’t start getting good until after World War II. This is one reason that its president was so sensitive about Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise portrait of the school as “the pleasantest country club in America.” Soon after its publication, Fitzgerald received a very strange letter from John Grier Hibben: “I am taking the liberty of telling you very frankly that your characterization of Princeton grieved me.” That letter was dated May 27, 1920, two weeks after students opened up Houseparties Weekend by burning down the chapel. (To be clear, no arson charges were filed, but an afternoon’s study of the matter will likely lead you to conclude that the kids were burning down the examination hall in the hope of getting out of exams and the chapel was just collateral damage.)

That May Monday, around 10:30 p.m., the innocent noodling of a study-break clarinetist came drifting from a window in Henry Courtyard. A trumpet honked reply, a trombone came in, as did vocal razzes and verbal jeers, building to a general clatter of instruments, phonograph records, fire alarms, cranked sirens, cherry-bombs, the rustle of toilet paper in the elms, the crackle of burning ivy on the old stone walls. The authorities appeared, nudging the mob to the town’s main drag.

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