For generations, the public face of Mardi Gras in New Orleans was parades put on by “krewes” of men – no women allowed, or so it seemed. In spite of that public face, women have been very active participants in Carnival since the beginning.
It may have been six men who gathered in 1856 to form the Mystic Krewe of Comus, but the “all-male” aspect of Carnival ended as soon as they walked out of that room. No doubt those men immediately enlisted wives, sisters, mothers, and daughters in their project. Those first two floats didn’t take to the streets on guy-power alone! Still, like many women of their day, the ladies of Comus (and later, the other “old line” krewes) remained behind the scenes.
The role of women went from completely in the background to more prominent when Carnival celebrations became the infrastructure for the city’s debutante season. In many Southern cities, the daughters of prominent families were formally presented to society at one or more balls or cotillions. Since society in New Orleans already put forth a great deal of effort (and money) celebrating Mardi Gras, it was only logical to merge the two. By the 1890s, the krewes not only selected a “king” for their parades, they also chose a “queen” and a “court” to attend her. The queen and court were chosen from the young women making their debut that season. With their daughters and granddaughters now taking an active role in the balls, the influence of women in the Carnival organizations became even stronger.
In the Twentieth Century, the Carnival-ball-as-debutante-cotillion tradition was well established, and the ladies themselves wanted their own organization. The idea was floated in 1917, and by 1922, the Krewe of Iris was formed. The ladies of Iris have the distinction of being the first organization to have their tableaux ball televised, on WDSU-TV, in 1949.
While the Krewe of Iris was the first all-woman krewe, they were not the first all-woman parade. The Krewe of Venus took took to the streets of New Orleans in 1941. According to Carnival historian Arthur Hardy, that first Venus parade was held in a downpour, and met with protest and scorn by many men, some of whom threw rotten vegetables at the riders.
The Krewe of Venus persevered, and resumed their parading after World War II. Those ladies were joined by Iris in 1959. Mardi Gras celebrations expanded to the suburbs that year, with the Krewe of Zeus rolling down Metairie Road, and the women living in Metairie wanted their own parades as well. The 1960s and 1970s saw several all-women krewes form in Metairie, notably the Krewes of Helios and Diana. In Gentilly, the Krewe of Pandora was formed by several women who were married to men in the Krewe of Hercules, the male parade that rolled in Gentilly. On the West Bank, the Krewe of Cleopatra formed in 1972. The ladies of Cleopatra have had their ups and downs, and they now parade on the traditional Uptown route in New Orleans.
In 2000, some women who were not affiliated with the existing female krewes formed a new organization, the Krewe of Muses. Their open-membership policy caused their numbers to swell almost overnight. Now, what used to be known as “Momus Thursday,” because it was the traditional parade night of the Knights of Momus, is now called “Muses Thursday.” So popular has the Krewe of Muses become that several women formed a spin-off krewe to ease the pressure on Muses’ waiting list. Now, that second group, the Krewe of Nyx, has a waiting list of its own. In addition to the all-female parades, several krewes that were traditionally all-male responded to economic pressures and the demands of getting new riders by becoming mixed-gender parades. Some organizations, like the super-krewe Orpheus have been male/female since their beginnings.
Riding floats isn’t the only way women participate in parades. In addition to walking with their daughters and their schools’ dance teams, there are a number of dance and marching groups for adult women. There are even a couple of all-female (or mostly-female) brass bands. Woman-power is a strong and important element of Mardi Gras in new Orleans!