With the immense popularity of the Krewe of Muses and all-female walking groups, such as the Pussy Footers, that march alongside it, it’s hard to imagine that women were once totally excluded from much of Mardi Gras.
Les Mysterieuses, the first female Carnival club, staged two Leap Year balls in 1896 and 1900. From 1901 to 1921, the Mittens held annual soirees. According to Dr. Karen Lethem of the Louisiana State Museum, nearly 20 other female “ball krewes” existed from 1900 to 1941. African-American women founded some of the organizations, including the S.S.S. Club, the Red Circle and Young Ladies Twenty-Three, all of which held balls in the 1920s.
Not until 1941, however, did the first female parade appear on the streets of New Orleans. Founding captain Aminthe Nungesser led a group of brave women who were determined to enter the male-dominated world of parading krewes.
On 12 floats rented from the Knights of Babylon, the 125 ladies of the Krewe of Venus rolled in the rain that year, to the amusement of many and the outrage of some. A few in the crowd threw eggs and tomatoes at the floats in protest.
Newspaper reports quoted a male parade-goer as saying, “It’s undignified, women riding on floats. They do not belong.”
Unbowed, the women of Venus took to the streets again in 1946, when Carnival returned after World War II.
Venus’s first doubloons in 1962 kicked off a 15-year tradition of saluting famous women. The 1976 to 1991 issues, honoring First Ladies of the United States, were especially popular. Declining membership caused Venus to call it quits in 1992, but its pioneering legacy lives on.
Carnival’s oldest remaining female parading club, the Krewe of Iris, first hit the streets in 1959, but not before having to overcome the objections of Canal Street merchants who feared the Saturday midday parade would interrupt business along the bustling thoroughfare. In 1949, Iris became the first Carnival club to have its bal masque televised.
Since 1958, some 16 female parades have come and gone, the most prominent including Adonis (1949-1964) and Pandora (1968-1993) in New Orleans; Metairie’s Helios (1958-1977), Diana (1969-1999) and Rhea (1971-2011); St. Bernard’s Juno (1970-1997), Aphrodite (1986-2005) and Shangri-La (1974-2008), which also paraded in New Orleans; and Nefertari (1975-1995) on the West Bank.
The 21st century has seen a flurry of exceptional women’s krewes. The combined rosters of Muses, Iris, Nyx, Cleopatra, Isis, Eve and Selene total nearly 5,000 members. That number doesn’t include the krewes’ formidable waiting lists, clear signs that the market is far from saturated — and that the movement toward a broader, more inclusive celebration has never failed to find takers in the city of New Orleans.