“We Want Panties!”: The 50th Anniversary of the Nation’s Largest Panty Raid

 

College life in the 1950s was far from bland. The Korean Conflict, McCarthyism, and Elvis Presley had students’ attention, along with stuffing people into telephone booths, disassembling cars and reassembling them in the offices of college deans, and, of all things, panty raids.

A national fad, and later called a lighthearted ad hoc protest against entry restrictions to campus dorms, male college students everywhere joined in the quest for women’s underclothes. They arrived in groups, unannounced, at a women’s residence hall or sorority house, and chanted, “We want panties!” Those who succeeded had a trophy to display and a good story to tell. On rare occasions, panties were tossed to the crowd with a first name and telephone number scribbled inside them. Those lucky enough to receive such a treasure had to return the property to its rightful owner—by way of a blind date.

Not surprisingly, university administrators took a dim view of this campus activity. A 1956 UC-Berkeley raid caused several thousand dollars in damaged doors and windows, as hundreds of men forced their way into a row of sorority homes and snatched undergarments from dresser drawers. One angry housemother defended her charges with the blunt end of an umbrella handle, and shouted at one offender, “You! I know your mother!” At Rutgers, panty raids were pronounced “childish” by the college deans and quickly outlawed. In response, the Rutgers student newspaper printed a list of co-eds living in the dorms under the title “Here They Are, Men, Go To It!” In Texas, at Arlington State College (now UT-Arlington), students celebrated a successful raid by hoisting the underwear to the top of a flag pole, tying the rope off at half mast, then greasing the pole.

Panty raids made their Austin debut in May 1952 and continued sporadically for about five years. Women’s residence halls were the favorite target, though sorority houses and off-campus dorms received their share of visits.

Officially, the University administration banned the activity, threatened participants with disciplinary probation or worse, and at times even collected Blanket Tax cards on the spot. The cards, which proved a student had paid their campus fees, was required to gain entrance to UT sporting events, especially football games. The cards were returned after a visit to the dean’s office, but often not before the hapless student had been forced to miss a game.

After 1957, panty raids took a hiatus from the campus, much to the relief of the administration. The University celebrated its 75th birthday in 1958, and by 1960, enrollment had topped 20,000 for the first time. Students were more involved in “approved” activities such as Varsity Carnivals, Round-up Parades, and Sweetheart elections. But as every dean knows, students are unpredictable. The panty raid fad of the 1950s was to have one last run in the “Great Raid of ’61.”

It was a warm Thursday evening on Nov. 2, 1961, when a fire started in a trash bin near the men’s dorms on the southeast side of the campus. As Austin fire trucks arrived to extinguish the flames, the commotion brought out the residents of Brackenridge, Roberts, Prather, and Moore-Hill halls.

Once outside and away from the books, the group resolved not to return right away, but to pay a friendly visit to the women’s dorms. Setting off around the back end of Gregory Gym, the crowd swelled with residents of the temporary San Jacinto dorms. By the time the group arrived in front of Kinsolving, more than 3,000 men were chanting, “We want girls! We want panties!”

The residents of Kinsolving smiled, giggled, and waved, but only one pair of panties was tossed from a third-story window. The crowd changed tactics, and instead of the direct approach, began to serenade the ladies with the Eyes of Texas. This didn’t work either, and not wanting to waste the evening, the group moved across the street to try their luck at Littlefield.

Littlefield residents were more cooperative.

A single pair of undergarments appeared, quickly followed by “an airdrop of flimsies which rallied the troops.” The men below chanted “More! More! More!” and some would-be Romeos tried to scale the walls of the dorm.

By now, the entire University Police force—all seven of them—along with 12 additional officers of the Austin Police had arrived to break-up the proceedings. While they could apprehend a few at a time, the best they could do was to keep the crowd moving.

The police charged; the longhorns stampeded. North to the Scottish Rite Dorm, where girls were instructed to lower their window shades, and sprinklers were turned on to flood the lawn. West to the sorority houses and some limited success, and then back to the campus. At Andrews dorm, some of the girls went up to the sun deck to “greet their worshippers.” Before long, even the statue of Diana the Huntress, in the center of the women’s quad, was sporting the latest in women’s lingerie.

Arno Nowotny, the Dean of Student Life, arrived on the scene, collected Blanket Tax cards by the handful, and set up appointments for their owners to retrieve them the following morning. It wasn’t until well after midnight that the last cry of “We want panties!” was heard.

The event caused quite a stir on the campus. Some of the residents of the Kirby Hall dorm (now the Kirby Hall School) complained in a letter to the Daily Texan that they had been left out of the festivities.

Another raid, though not quite as large, occurred the following year. On Thurs., Oct.11, following the OU football rally, a group of 1,000 men descended on the women’s dorms. Dean Nowotny and the police were ready, but so were the students. Not wanting to miss the OU football game, most had conveniently left their Blanket Tax cards at home. The roving crowd made certain the Kirby Hall dorm was on the route, and in turn, “panties streamed into the air like pollen from a flower in full bloom.”

 

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