Images from Vanderbilt University Special Collections and University Archives.
On May 20, 1952, during my first year of graduate work at Vanderbilt, I phoned a nursing student who lived in Mary Henderson Hall, the nursing dormitory. I had casually dated her a few times, and attended the same church with her and one of her two roommates. I wanted to learn their reactions to the first Vanderbilt panty raid, which two days earlier had culminated in a siege of their dorm by hundreds of male students.
The “boys” had earlier tried, with some success, to gain access to other women’s dorms and sorority houses. But this raid led to $700 in damages, suspension of five students, and probation for 25 others. Overwhelmed and inept city police could do little to contain the mob, and during the assault on Mary Henderson, one policeman received a serious injury from a falling window screen. Everyone assumed that some of the women had thrown it from an upper-story window.
Thus, as a way to tease my friend, I began the phone conversation by asking why these three very serious, very conscientious, very religious young women had thrown a window screen at the loud, taunting mob below. I never dreamed that they were actually involved.
My question led to a long silence. Then in a voice that reflected both surprise and fear came her reply: “How in the world did you know it was our screen?”
She explained that the panty raid had scared them half to death. They were afraid some of the men would climb up fire escapes and invade their dorm room. They feared rape. Thus, they had tried better to secure the window screen and, in doing so, accidentally jarred it loose. They were horrified when they learned from newspapers the impact of the screen.
For them, this panty raid had led to a night of sheer terror. I suddenly realized that panty raids, so easily viewed as frivolous pranks by sexually repressed young men, could have serious, even deadly, consequences.
The raid at Vanderbilt was but one of many that took place on at least 70 campuses nationwide within a span of a few months. Everyone agrees that the first panty raid occurred at the University of Michigan, although it was only retrospectively so named.
On the first warm spring day in 1952, students at Michigan overturned police cars, invaded several women’s dorms, and stole what local newspapers delicately called “unmentionables” or “items of lingerie.”
This “mass riot,” as the campus newspaper dubbed it, gained national news coverage, but it is not clear who first referred to it as a “panty raid.” “Panty,” a derivative of the common word “panties,” was a new word. Panty raids continued for a decade, with the largest and most violent in the mid-’50s. The gathering of the mass of students needed for such raids variously involved pep rallies or celebrations of athletic victories, protests against university policies, or police-student conflict. At Vanderbilt the original raid of 1952 would be followed by at least four others, with the most infamous raid in 1957 and the last in 1959.
Panty raids were only one outlet for the student boredom, anxieties and frustrations that marked the whole decade of the 1950s. Unlike many northern universities, for Vanderbilt the ’50s, not the ’60s, was the most turbulent decade in student history, and the decade in which student morale probably reached its lowest ebb.
By the mid-’50s, at Vanderbilt and at other universities, almost any large gathering of students risked some type of disruption. The first major disturbance at Vanderbilt occurred in 1950, when a boisterous serenade of a sorority led to neighborhood protest and police intervention. What followed was a type of ongoing warfare between elite Vanderbilt students and non–college-educated police officers, in a decade marked by intense town-gown conflict.
In 1954 a snowball fight between students and Nashville police ballooned into a near-riot, with minor injuries and a few arrests. During a snowball fight in 1963, students shot pellets at policemen, broke windows of police cars, and easily could have blinded someone. At times, students rushed out of their dorms at the slightest provocation. Personnel deans prayed that snowstorms would miss Nashville, and they dreaded evening phone calls informing them that “the boys were out.”
Several circumstances helped account for student unrest at Vanderbilt. By 1951 college men were subject to the draft and likely service in Korea if they did not maintain the grades needed to justify student deferments. This meant uncertainty and insecurity for average students. For almost a decade a majority of students, most from Tennessee, almost all from the South, fought against new policies designed to rein in the fraternity system at Vanderbilt. Three-fourths of all undergraduates belonged to social fraternities and jealously defended the degree of independence they enjoyed in their aging, off-campus houses, a freedom they lost by the end of the decade.
Students also resented new course require-ments, such as a yearlong course in Western Civilization. They chafed at new, required parking permits. Most absorbed the fashionable social criticism of American society in the Eisenhower ’50s: that youth were part of a conforming, other-directed, mediocre generation. Thus, students constantly bemoaned the lack of intellectuality at Vanderbilt, the poor quality of teaching, the lack of in-depth dialogue with faculty.
Theories abound about the deeper causes of panty raids, with emphasis on their sexual overtones. Many students joined in simply because they were a fashionable fad on campuses. Unlike campus unrest in the late ’60s, panty raids were not directed at major social ills such as racial discrimination or a war in Vietnam. At best, one can view them as an opening barrage in the type of counter-cultural rebellion that peaked in the early 1970s. Students were rebelling against the uptight mores of their parents and, in particular, against in loco parentis on campus.
At Vanderbilt the gender imbalance (three males for each female), a higher admission requirement for coeds (and thus their higher academic achievement), and very restrictive dorm rules for women all impeded the mating game. It was truer at Vanderbilt than at most campuses that men talked about sex all the time in large part because they had such little opportunity to indulge in it. Their assault on the chastity barrier reflected in women’s dorms, and their display of panties as trophies of conquest on the gender battlefield, may have relieved some sexual tensions. But even this conclusion is highly speculative.
The terribly serious damage that could result from panty raids was made clear during the raid at Vanderbilt on Nov. 26–27, 1957. It followed a pep rally that preceded a University of Tennessee football game, and came in the midst of intense student anger at a faculty vote to deny students a Thanksgiving break in the midst of a resented new semester system. A slowly gathering mob of young men successfully invaded McTyeire, stealing under-garments. They failed to break the doors to Cole, but moved on to Tolman where they broke windows. By 11:15 p.m. they again invaded McTyeire, this time breaking windows and screens and stealing valuable clothing. They then besieged Mary Henderson, set fire to trash cans, and blocked and then crossed 21st Avenue in an invasion of Peabody College (then not part of Vanderbilt). They broke into Confederate Hall and then into East Hall, a graduate women’s dorm, where they stole not only clothes but wallets and money.
Many of the Peabody women were older, some were foreign students, and all were frightened by an unfamiliar invasion. One foreign student was so terrorized as to require hospitalization. The Nashville police, who had learned that their presence usually only made things worse, stayed away until after midnight, when it was clear that the mob was increasingly violent. Young men slashed tires on police cars. As the mob finally dispersed by 2 a.m., police arrested every student they could catch—37 in all—regardless of their degree of involvement in the violence.
It was now time for repentance and apologies. The student senate called a special convocation and wrote a letter of apology to Peabody. At the arraignment of the 37 men arrested, the local judge made them responsible for identifying those students actually involved in the break-ins. In light of the Vanderbilt honor system, he challenged those guilty to show their honor by confessing. The tactic worked; 265 men confessed and thereby suffered probation at Vanderbilt. They promised to pay for all damages, which they did. The impressed judge dismissed all criminal charges just before Christmas.
Never again would such a raid take place at Vanderbilt. The last panty raid in 1959, following two days of protest against the closing of the old fraternity houses, involved only 250 men and an unsuccessful attempt to gain entrance to one women’s dorm. Despite the intense anti-administration sentiment, few men chose to join what was by then a dying fad. A few years later a more open dorm policy would make such raids pointless. V