No Men Allowed: A Look Inside the Mysterious Panthygatric Dances of the Early 1900s

Panthygatric Dance, 1896 Arbutus
1896 Arbutus

The word Panthygatric looks and sounds unappealing. However, the women it involved would tell you otherwise. In the late 1890s through the early 1920s, sorority women from the then-four houses on the Bloomington campus would come together to plan an exciting banquet. The idea actually stemmed from the fraternities, who were forming an extremely elaborate and expensive party. They called it the “Pan-Hellenic” dance. Originally, women were invited, but the more elaborate the planning got, the more they wanted it to be without females.

Rule 1: Never mess with a woman and her party plans.

Women sitting on floor or standing, some dressed in men's clothing.
Women at the Panthygatric Dance, possibly 1905.

To spite the fraternities, the women decided to throw an even better party. They chose not to invite the men, and in a fun twist of fate, the fraternities Panhellenic dance was cancelled, whereas the women’s dance became an annual tradition.

What happened at these mysterious Panthygatrics? Sorority sisters would wear their house colors but they each had unique costumes. These included everything from a sailor, to a boy, to a ballerina, to a football player. They wore masks to keep their identity concealed and were very secretive as to how they would arrive at the venue to avoid their identity being given away. There was dancing, toasts, and lots of food. Women were able to talk and meet new people without any of the typical social pressures. Ironically enough, the mysteriousness of the dance and its activities is what gave it all of its publicity and attention.

In 1906, three men were caught looking into the window, trying to get a glimpse of this unique event. While they were caught before getting a decent look and escorted out, one of them decided to turn that quick peek into a scandal. Writing a letter to the The Daily Student (the present day Indiana Daily Student), he wrote (under the initials G.A.R.) of the Panthygatric scene he saw, saying how unladylike and wrong it was for young, respectable women to dress and act in such a disturbing manner. This letter sparked a response from Mary Breed, the Dean of Women, who had been in attendance that night. She argued there had not been any shenanigans; her accounts insist everything was innocent and fun. The editor of the The Daily Student, Robert Thompson, was told to write a retraction since the article from G.A.R. made the women who attended look bad to the public. Robert refused, saying the note was a joke and should have been taken as such. He also noted that he was not there to clear the article before it was published, so he should not be punished for it.

IDS headline: Dean Breed Defends Last Panthygatric. April 19, 1906
Daily Student, 19 April 1906

The Trustees declared him in the wrong and suspended both him and William Mattox (another member of The Daily Student) until they resigned from the student newspaper. When they finally left the newspaper staff, they were reinstated to Indiana University at students. Before you start feeling bad for William and Robert, A Bedford Weekly newspaper article states that this was not the first incident with the boys putting “alternative facts” in The Daily Student. They had been warned to stop numerous times.

Advertisement seen in the IDS shortly before the Panthygatric event (The Daily Student, March 1, 1907)

The Panthygatric continued for years to come, with different incidents involving men arising over the years — from the guys sneaking in to steal desserts or dressing as women in an attempt to slip in unnoticed. Bouncers were placed at the doors, but if anyone got around them, they were met with women holding buckets of cold water. Even local businesses got into the spirit, selling products geared toward the dance!

During World War I, the Panthygatric was cancelled and resumed for only a few years following. In its heyday however, hundreds of female students and faculty attended and enjoyed the event.

It’s Women’s History Month!

It’s March, which means not only is spring just around the corner, but also that it’s Women’s History Month! In addition, this year marks the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Indiana University Office for Women’s Affairs. In honor of both of these events, I’d like to highlight one of the archives’ collections – Indiana University Office for Women’s Affairs records, 1971-1985, bulk 1972-1980. But first, I would like to mention that there is a display in celebration of these events as well in the lobby of Wells Library. I collaborated on the display for an internship project and anyone who is interested should take a little time to check it out!

Focus Newsletter
The first Focus newsletter, 1977

For anyone who’d like to conduct research on women’s issues or the OWA, or for those who are just curious, the aforementioned collection would be a great option to investigate. The collection covers the office’s early years and consists of five boxes made up of four series, some of which are divided into sub-series. The series are as follows: Reference files, 1964-1981; Focus newsletter, 1977-1979; Program development, 1971-1983; and Administrative subject files, 1975-1985. Pictured at right is the first Focus newsletter, just one of the finds within the collection. Copies of later newsletters are also available in the collection, and all of these are featured on the “Women’s Issues in the News at IU” poster in the library’s lobby. For more information on the contents of the collection, please feel free to take a look at the finding aid.

More information on women, women’s issues and the OWA can also be found in the archives’ reference files. Take advantage of Women’s History Month and come see what the archives have to offer!