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From the Archives: Panty raids and beauty contests — Notre Dame’s history of sexist traditions

, , and | Monday, September 27, 2021

Diane Park | The Observer

The anonymous messages on Yik Yak targeting Saint Mary’s students showed that fraught gender relations in the tri-campus community are not a thing of the past. Despite institutional and cultural shifts, many women here continue to be subjected to sexist attacks and microaggressions.

This week’s edition of From the Archives seeks to uncover Notre Dame’s history of sexist traditions to remind our community that, though gender relations have improved on Notre Dame’s campus in the past 50 years, we must continue to hold each other accountable to prevent further instances of mistreatment. 

Grand theft undies: South Bend

April 20, 1967 | Terry O’Brien | April 27, 1970 | Dave Lammers and Jim Brogan | Researched by Spencer Kelly

Recent animosity between Notre Dame men and Saint Mary’s women has manifested virtually. But in the pre-internet era, the battleground was the dorm room dresser.

On April 16, 1967, 1,500 Notre Dame students initiated a panty raid on the students of Saint Mary’s College. Cries of “We want panties” and “Go Irish” erupted as bra bandits ran across Saint Mary’s campus, collecting undergarments thrown from the windows of dorms. During the madness, one Saint Mary’s student asked someone why he wanted her panties. The answer: “Hell, because they’re there.”

Observer archives, April 20, 1967
Masses of Notre Dame male students congregate at Saint Mary’s College for a panty raid in 1967. Despite protest from Saint Mary’s students, the event would go on to become a long-standing Notre Dame tradition, with yearly raids occurring throughout the late ’60s and most of the ’70s.

South Bend Police responded with force, sending in K-9 units and unleashing tear gas. However, just eight students were caught, with punishments ranging from “indefinite probation” to “expulsion from campus living quarters.”

Student body president James Fish said the disturbance that night was “75 percent the fault of Saint Mary’s,” citing the behavior of Saint Mary’s students as the raid took place.

“The girls hung out of windows half dressed screeching obscenities which were equal in force, if not worse than those shouted by the Notre Dame students,” Fish said.

Observer archives, April 20, 1967

On April 26, 1970, another raid occurred — and this time, actions were more calamitous. The previous raid saw some Saint Mary’s students throwing panties from their windows, but this time students actually broke into dorms. Beyond underwear, girls reported missing radios, records and purses. Stolen and damaged property amounted to $2500. One student said sleeping girls were taken from their beds and dumped in the hall. Another reported a sexual assault.

In a Letter to the Editor, a Saint Mary’s student named Kathy wrote that 10 men broke into her room and stole most of her clothes. She condemned the actions of the “mob of juvenile delinquents” that, in her mind, characterized Notre Dame as a whole.

“I hope our after-midnight gentlemen-callers realized the image they were projecting on their University,” Kathy wrote. “Is Notre Dame asking the women of St. Mary’s to form a community with a bunch of screaming immature thieves?”

A few days after the second raid, Notre Dame held a panel on “Male Supremacy at Notre Dame.” The first demand of the panel was for the University to “open admission for undergraduate women,” and the events of the previous panty raid were set to be a key point of discussion. 

And in the fall of 1972, the first women enrolled at Notre Dame. In a twist of fate, the sexist actions of Notre Dame men might have led to the University’s eventual integration of women.

When the first women arrived on Notre Dame’s campus, they faced hostility and harassment from male students. Nonetheless, these trailblazers remained resilient — and one night in 1973, they exacted revenge.

The Observer’s Katie Hieatt (‘20) and Annie Moran (‘20) retold a triumphant story from the early years of coeducation at Notre Dame. On Sept. 20, 1973, women celebrated Billie Jean King’s victory in the Battle of the Sexes tennis match by flipping the panty raid on its head.

“This night,” Hieatt and Moran wrote, “men’s dorms echoed with women’s voices shouting, ‘Jock raid!’”

The women of Notre Dame turned the tables on their male counterparts, giving male students a taste of their own medicine, avenging their Saint Mary’s sisters and establishing themselves as a force to be reckoned with. 

“Such was the character of the early Notre Dame women,” Hieatt and Moran concluded, “boldly invading and reclaiming all-male spaces with fearlessness, humor and a fierce sense of sorority.”

Saint Mary’s panty raids: Rethinking tradition, 20 years later

Sept. 25, 1989 | Kelly Tuthill | Researched by Lilyann Gardner ​​

Traditions are a means of reliving and preserving the past — but is this always a good thing? 

Kelley Tuthill (‘92), an assistant news editor for the Observer, was one of many students that viewed the Saint Mary’s panty raids as something that should be left in the past.

While the panty raids of the early 1970s were thrown together without much rhyme or reason, time saw the practice turn into an annual and well-organized tradition: In 1989, Tuthill reported, raids functioned as a sort of initiation event for the male freshman class, occurring yearly on the Wednesday before the first home football game.

Although the male upperclassmen at the university encouraged this tradition, many female upperclassmen at Notre Dame frowned upon the practice, arguing that the panty raids created a divide between the women of Saint Mary’s and the women of Notre Dame.

“[Panty raids] literally personif[y] the stereotypical sentiments that Notre Dame women wrongfully express towards the women at Saint Mary’s,” Tuthill wrote.

One such stereotype that was popular on Notre Dame’s campus — and perpetuated by the panty raids, Tuthill argued — was the belief that Saint Mary’s women were only at school for the purpose of marrying a Notre Dame man.

“I try to stop the spreading of this stereotype, but the panty raid doesn’t help,” Tuthill wrote. “Neither does a front page photo of a freshman holding a pair of Saint Mary’s student’s underwear.”

Notre Dame women viewed their tri-campus sisters as immature and unserious because Saint Mary’s students actively participated in the sexual nature of the tradition, Tuthill argued.

Tuthill also emphasized that the only way to truly end this outdated practice and to heal relations between the campuses was for Saint Mary’s women to simply close their windows and say no.

“It does not take K-9 forces to stop the annual panty raid,” she wrote. “It only takes initiative from a few Saint Mary’s women.”

Observer archives, April 27, 1970
Two Notre Dame students wear the undergarments they acquired in the panty raid on April 26, 1970.

Ultimately, Tuthill advocated for a common understanding between the women of the two schools.  

“Well, if we’re talking underwear collections as trophies then Saint Mary’s students and Notre Dame females should remember one thing: we’re all women,” she wrote. “I don’t think our underwear should be displayed as ‘trophies’ in men’s rooms or on the front page of The Observer.”

Considering Tuthill’s arguments more than 30 years later, it is imperative that we, as members of the tri-campus community, remember to respect one another and to speak out against harmful stereotypes that promote hatred and disconnect. Even to this day, sexist behavior continues to dehumanize the women in this community, so we must continue to work to make our campuses a more equitable place for female students, faculty and staff.

Dining hall ‘rating contest’ sparks controversy

March 7, 1975 | Tom Brogan and Drew Danik | March 11, 1975 | Marirose Lescher and Rosemary Gill 

Researched by Chris Russo

On March 6 and March 11, 1975, a slew of Letters to the Editor published in The Observer offered a wide array of perspectives on a strange event that occurred in South Dining Hall. On Feb. 27, 1975, several residents of the now-demolished Holy Cross Hall decided to participate in a dining hall “rating contest,” wherein hosts pointed out passersby — mostly female students — and had judges “rate” them by holding up numbered cards.

Observer archives, March 7, 1975

In one Letter to the Editor, Tom Brogan (‘77) and Drew Danik (‘75) described the event as a “practical joke,” arguing that the event should have been received as such. They pointed out that both men and women were rated, including those participating in the judging, and claimed that “the ratings were arbitrary and had no relation to ‘beauty.’”

Former dean of students John Machecha caught word of the event due to backlash on campus, placing a ban on any further “rating” contests. Brogan and Danik voiced significant disappointment, stating that they would not apologize for the actions of themselves and fellow residents of Holy Cross Hall. 

“We will not apologize for the action of the Holy Cross residents involved, of which we are two, because we do not feel apologies are really needed when no harm is intended,” they wrote. “However, we invite anyone whose feelings were hurt to contact us and explain their side of the story.”

That same day, another group of male students also penned a letter detailing their frustrations with the handling of the matter. Contrary to campus backlash, Steve Meiskey (‘78), Max Brady and Louis Groden (‘78) describe their objectors as whiny, immature “deadbeats.” They chided some women and administrators on campus for “lack[ing] a sense of humor.”

Although the male participants painted the occasion as lighthearted and mostly well-received, they lacked the perspective of the female subjects of the rating game. Despite their impassioned defense of the rating contest, Brogan and Danik did concede that “some young ladies were perturbed by the incident.”

Marirose Lescher and Rosemary Gill might have been two of the “young ladies” the letter referred to. The two students published their thoughts in the March 11, 1975 edition of The Observer, both critical of the male students’ rating practices.

Lescher argued that the intention behind a joke will not guarantee its reception, especially in instances that involve unwitting bystanders. She completely disagreed with Meiskey, Brady and Groden’s view that those affected took it “too seriously” — in fact, she suggested that this incident was indicative of a broader campus culture.

“The incident of rating women in the dining hall seems to be a reflection of the general chauvinistic attitude many Notre Dame men display toward women,” Lescher wrote. 

Gill expressed a similar attitude, noting that — despite significant progress in gender equality in the preceding years — societal norms impacting women still exist. She went on to thank the University administration for taking action on the issue.

“It is encouraging that the University did take action,” Gill wrote. “The fact that the students did not recognize this insolence is not so reassuring.”

And although Gill was a Saint Mary’s student, she offered advice to women at Notre Dame for dealing with issues of gender mistreatment.

“Unless women do stand up … and refuse to be subjected to this treatment,” she wrote, “these practices and the ideals that go with them will not change.”

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About Uyen Le

Uyen is a senior at Notre Dame, studying English and Gender Studies. She is currently serving as the Leader of the From the Archives Project. Though she loyally follows AP Style in The Observer, on all other platforms, she is a strong proponent of the Oxford comma.

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About Chris Russo

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About Spencer Kelly

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About Lilyann Gardner

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