A mass panty raid variously described as a “hell raising mob,” an “insurrection,” or a manifestation of “spring fever” swept through the streets around the UC Berkeley campus 50 years ago this week, leaving damage and embarrassment in its wake.
“In two and one half hours about 15 percent of the student body has wiped out a reputation for responsible student leadership which had been built up since the days when Benjamin Ide Wheeler was president,” the Daily Californian editorialized.
“Panty raiding” was a 1950s fad in which male students, often gathering spontaneously, would march to residences of women students, demanding, and sometimes entering and stealing, undergarments.
An October 1952 incident at the University of Michigan seems to be considered the first major collegiate panty raid. Berkeley’s incident came much later.
On Wednesday, May 16, 1956, temperatures in Berkeley climbed to over 90 degrees. Smog from car exhaust and perpetual garbage burning along the bay shore layered over the East Bay.
Afternoon water fights broke out both north and south of campus where sex-segregated student living groups—fraternities, sororities, cooperatives, and boarding houses—were thickly clustered.
“At Channing circle” the Daily Californian reported, “traffic was completely blocked by police as women of all ages were drenched by water thrown from all sorts of receptacles including bathtubs…”
A lull followed. Then, around 9:30 p.m., “several hundred men students from the comparatively small frat area on the north side of the campus crossed to the bigger southern area—raiding the women’s residence hall (Stern Hall) on the campus en route,” the paper said.
“At first the temper of the crowd was good natured, and many of the women were friendly and even encouraged the men,” a university report later noted. “In some instances, they left doors unlocked to facilitate entrance.”
“At some sorority houses girls thronged upstairs balconies to heave scanties at the approaching male mob—whether to encourage the invasions or dissuade them being an unanswered question,” said the San Francisco Examiner.
The mood then began to turn “from good natured participation in a game to … real belligerency.”
“At the height of the melee, hundreds of students broke into one sorority house after another, stealing lingerie, overturning furniture, breaking doors and manhandling coeds,” said the San Francisco Chronicle.
Along with underwear some purses, money, watches, a wedding trousseau, and even the graduation speech notes of the senior class valedictorian reportedly disappeared.
“I have never seen so much complete hysteria,” Delta Zeta vice-president Darleen Winwick told the Daily Californian. “The lights were out and people were running everywhere.”
Coeds wielded irons, umbrellas, and table lamps as impromptu weapons against the invaders.
The raid finally fizzled out after the crowd headed towards the dormitories at the University’s Smyth-Fernwald housing complex on the top of Dwight Way and were met by male residents who blocked the way to the women’s halls.
Crowd remnants turned back and were talked into dispersing by university officials and the ASUC President.
“Before the wild affair was over, virtually every raider had donned women’s underclothes over his own clothing or sported a similar trophy atop his head as a snood,” said the Examiner.
“I am horrified,” Assistant Dean of Students William Shepherd told the press after viewing the riot area in a Berkeley police car. “Nothing like this has ever happened in my university career.”
“2,000 At UC Go On Wild Spree” the San Francisco Chronicle headlined the morning after. Although Cal students formed the bulk of the crowd, others were implicated.
Berkeley Police “got back twenty-three undergarments from West Berkeley youngsters—not university students—who joined in the fun” and were stopped leaving the area.
A Warring Street resident told the press he “saw many older men in the crowd, some of them baldheaded. Many of them had pillowcases, filling them with loot.”
In the aftermath, some of the more salacious stories were discounted.
“There has been no confirmation of reports of girls being carried nude from the houses, beds being overturned with girls in them or girls being stripped of pajamas,” Captain L.H. Laird of the Berkeley police told the press.
“The police said they had yet to receive a single complaint of personal injury, or of assault in any manner,” the Examiner reported.
Still, lurid accounts spread around the country and world.
“Some girls were stripped, pummeled a bit, and carried away in pajamas or in the nude…” read the “Education” section of the May 28, 1956 Newsweek.
Then-Chancellor Clark Kerr later wrote that “one alumnus sent me a newspaper story from Beirut about how naked women had been carried through the streets of Berkeley on the shoulders of men students on their way to an orgy that would match anything the ancient Romans could have organized.”
“Ours has been one of the few institutions in the country that didn’t have panty raids or mob violence of any kind,” mourned Dean of Students Hurford Stone.
“Deans all over the country have asked me how we did it, and I contended we have more mature students and a student government that actually worked. Now we have to say we are like all the rest.”
The day after the raid, a Daily Californian editorial entitled “The Masses Are Asses,” calling the event “one of the most horrifying mass riots in the history of the university.”
Signed by assistant managing editor Dennie Wombwell, who lived in the sorority district, it deplored “a tragedy—and a disgusting one.”
Not all students agreed. One male letter writer to the Daily Cal called Wombwell “convulsive” and “hysterical,” while the riot was merely “unfortunate.”
But others supported the editorial dismay.
“It is interesting, and perhaps a little sad, to note that the most determined and spontaneous effort to date by the students of the nation’s greatest university had as its object the redistribution of lingerie,” one letter writer observed.
The cost of damage to houses and losses of clothing was later estimated at about $12,000.
“The streets surrounding the area took on the appearance of a bargain basement after a women’s lingerie sale,” the Oakland Tribune said.
“Men’s groups throughout the campus area today continued to return articles of “unmentionables” they had carried as banners the Wednesday,” the Tribune added on Friday, May 18. Men’s living groups pledged reimbursement.
“Sorority girls robbed of their underthings today stood in line to view the array of lingerie collected by the campus police. Those who could identify specific garments were allowed to take them back to their living quarters,” reported the Oakland Tribune.
Why did it happen?
“College males, like other males of the same age, are essentially small boys grown tall,” Dr. Tamotsu Shibutani, “a UC sociologist” told the Oakland Tribune.
An official UC report partially blamed an exhausting academic year with few breaks, along with “the combination of exceptionally hot and humid weather and the tension of impending final examinations.”
Only part of the crowd actually participated in the sorority invasions, and the police were “ineffective,” the report added.
Berkeley’s city manager said that in situations like this, “police practice does not consist of answering individual calls and dashing madly from point to point.”
On May 28, the Faculty Committee on Student Conduct issued academic sanctions against 14 of 16 students charged with offences related to the panty raid. Nine were suspended.
The incident later figured in a 1963 novel, Stacy Tower, by Berkeley alumnus Robert H.K. Walter. In the book, a mass panty raid at a loosely fictionalized UC campus helps derail the pending appointment of a liberal university president.
`In reality, two years after the raid Chancellor Clark Kerr—still viewed as a liberal in those pre-Free Speech Movement days—was named UC President.
And, ultimately, the story of the incident ended as it had begun—with copious amounts of cool water.
“I went to Walter Haas of the class of 1910 to ask him whether the answer to a warm night in spring might better be a cold dip in a supervised swimming pool,” Kerr later recalled. “He answered ‘yes’ and contributed $300,000,” to build the Strawberry Canyon Recreation Center for students.
Haas “often told me later” wrote Kerr, “that this gift, as he saw its many uses, had given him the most personal pleasure of the many gifts he had made. In any event, there were no more panty raids.”