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Mardi Gras Sisterhood 

All-female krewes are redefining Carnival -- with a woman's touch.

As she stood watching the all-male Krewe of Druids wind down St. Charles Avenue during Mardi Gras 2000, Staci Rosenberg saw a float-riding friend of hers throwing beads, pointing to the crowd and having a great time. The magic of that moment registered immediately and stayed with her long afterward.

"Why can't I do that," she remembers thinking. As she walked back to her apartment after the parade, she decided she could.

And so the Krewe of Muses was born.

"Having absolutely no idea what was involved and that it would take over my life," Rosenberg recalls, "I just thought, 'I'll start my own krewe.'"

Although she didn't know it at the time, Rosenberg was repeating history. Ever since the Krewe of Les Mysterieuses debuted in 1896 and staged a masked ball, women krewes have redefined Mardi Gras even as they followed some time-honored traditions. Riders in women's krewes love a parade, and most say it would take more than just a little adversity to keep them from rolling.

It was hardly an auspicious beginning. In 1941, the Krewe of Venus became the first all-female krewe to parade through the streets of New Orleans, and krewe members did it in a float-soaking, costume-drenching downpour -- before a somewhat hostile crowd. The event generated a great deal of publicity, and, as Mardi Gras historian Arthur Hardy points out, little of it was positive.

"It's interesting to look at the newspaper clippings from back then, because it was front page news: Women on floats. The apocalypse is near," Hardy says. "I'm exaggerating a little bit, but not much."

Most men wanted Carnival's female pioneers to fail. Louisiana State Museum historian Karen Leathem notes that most women, however, supported Venus' groundbreaking efforts. The krewe included many businesswomen, who not only could finance a parade without male assistance but also were accustomed to moving in circles previously reserved exclusively for men. They could handle the resistance as well as the resentment that Venus triggered.

Good thing, because beads and rain weren't the only things in the air the day of this inaugural parade. Some onlookers, according to Leathem, pelted the krewe with tomatoes and rotten eggs. The women soldiered on, knowing they were making history.

"They really took seriously that this was a big moment," Leathem says.

Still, considering the first year's rain and that World War II forced the cancellation of Mardi Gras for the next four years, it may have appeared at the time that Venus' detractors had gotten their wish. The krewe returned, however, and demonstrated an indomitable spirit.

"They were kind of snake-bitten in the beginning, but they didn't give it up," Hardy says.

Aminthe Nungesser, a seminal figure in New Orleans' Mardi Gras history, founded Venus and was the krewe's first captain. According to Joy Oswald, longtime captain of Iris, Nungesser also was the first captain of Iris, which she founded as a non-parading women's krewe in 1917.

Those early women's Mardi Gras balls must have been memorable. In 1949, the Iris ball became the first ever to be televised when local channel WDSU broadcast the occasion. Nungesser must have felt a bit overwhelmed captaining two krewes at once. Oswald notes that by 1951, Iris had dwindled to 30 members, and Nungesser needed some help.

"She really couldn't handle two of them," Oswald says. "She asked my aunt, who was Queen of Venus, if she would like to do it."

Oswald's aunt, Irma Mellaney Strode, accepted the responsibility and appointed her niece, Joy Oswald, as the president. The two proved to be an effective team, and Iris rolled for the first time in 1959. From just 30 members in 1951, the group has grown to become one of the largest of the all-women krewes, with approximately 900 members riding in this year's parade.

Oswald, who is only the third captain in the krewe's 90-year history, says Iris likely won't get much bigger, partly because the krewe would have to arrange for even more of the members' hallmark, custom-fitted costumes. Plus, in order to join Iris, a woman must be recommended by a member. Oswald believes this makes for a better organization because "they all know each other."

In many cases, the members are related. Four generations of Oswald's family have paraded in Iris, and there are many mothers, daughters and granddaughters who ride together. The familial membership is in keeping with the organization's annual parade theme.

"All of our themes are light and happy and are geared towards the family," Oswald says.

The concept of "family" underscores most all-female krewes, but there's also the sense of a larger family at play, or, as Rosenberg refers to it, "a big band of sisterhood."

Cheryl Gorman, a spokesperson for the Metairie-based Krewe of Isis, says her krewe holds events such as private showings of plays, fashion shows, casino trips and weekly Saturday night bingo games (which raise funds for krewe floats). Not all krewe members live in the metro area, but Gorman reports that New Orleans expatriates often return to attend krewe gatherings.

Isis likes to keep its membership small -- around 300 -- to preserve a sense of closeness. "We celebrate births, but we also mourn deaths," says Gorman. Every extended family needs a matriarch, and for Isis that's Joyce Blondeau, the krewe's captain and founder, who takes time to know every member of her krewe.

"I guarantee you that my captain knows all of our members," Gorman says. "She can run into someone who hasn't ridden in 10 years, and she will know who they are."

A dynamic captain is essential to the success of any krewe. Joyce Kepner, founder and captain of the West Bank's Krewe of Cleopatra, has run the show since the group's inception in 1972. Kepner is a natural at building relationships and at diplomacy -- Cleopatra is one of only two krewes whose parade routes cross the Orleans-Jefferson line. Although a skilled diplomat, Kepner, like the organization's namesake, has an independent streak -- and her krewe doesn't need a "king" to complete its mission.

"Cleopatra rules alone," Kepner emphasizes, but she follows that up with an amiable, "All of our ladies are queens."

Joining Cleopatra often happens by word of mouth in that members will simply forward requests to join. Unlike Iris and Isis, which accept new applicants only upon recommendation of a current member, Kepner entertains the occasional cold call inquiring about membership. In all cases, Kepner does her best to accommodate.

"We just keep rolling," Kepner says. "We don't want to disappoint anyone."

Muses doesn't want to disappoint either, but with a membership that has already swollen to more than 1,100 women, some members must wait a year or two (on a waiting list) before they can ride. Rosenberg attributes part of this to her krewe's membership being open to any woman over 18 years old, and that the application is available on the krewe's Web site (www.kreweofmuses.org). Muses also conducts community outreach with membership booths at various events to solicit women from across New Orleans in order to ensure ethnic and economic diversity.

Open and public membership is just one way Muses has changed some of the "rules" regarding female krewes. While the other three groups generally present themes that are lighter and family-oriented, Muses celebrates the satirical side of Carnival. In past years, Muses has produced "The Lesser Known Gods and Goddesses," which deified bad boyfriends and foot fetishists; and 2006's "Muses Got Game" justifiably skewered FEMA with "Barrel Full of Monkeys" and Congressman Jefferson's freezer antics with "Hide and Seek."

Muses can be reflective as well. Last year's final float was of Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory. The float, appropriately riderless, was inscribed with powerful statements: "We Celebrate Life. We Mourn the Past. We Shall Never Forget."

Rosenberg admits that when she first formed Muses and began meeting with the initial group of women, they weren't sure how krewes operated; then again, they also knew they didn't need a model.

"We haven't tried to replicate a men's krewe or any traditional krewe," Rosenberg says. "We don't have a ball, we don't have a king or a queen. We haven't tried to recreate what was there -- we've tried to do something different."

One of the most obvious differences is the group's name. Muses isn't a single female entity like Isis, Cleopatra or Iris. Muses, taken from Greek mythology, are the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. Each of the sisters represents an ancient art or science, and they are considered inspirations to artists, philosophers and scientists. In New Orleans, they also represent the names of streets -- Calliope, Euterpe and Thalia, for example -- making Muses recognizable to parade goers. The name also was an easy sell to Rosenberg's new krewe.

Each year, instead of naming a queen from within the ranks, the krewe spotlights one of the nine daughters and names an honorary muse from the community who best symbolizes that particular goddess. Erato is the chosen goddess this year, and although normally she is the goddess of love poetry, the krewe expanded her domain to include all poetry and love for New Orleans. Brenda Marie Osbey, Louisiana poet laureate, American Book Award winner and a New Orleans native, will serve as this year's honorary muse.

Muses isn't averse to borrowing from other krewes as well. According to Rosenberg, the Zulu coconut inspired the creation of the Muses' signature shoe throw. Krewe members collect women's shoes throughout the year and elaborately decorate them. The shoes become prized throws on the day of the parade. Rosenberg laughs when she tells the story of a Zulu member asking her if Muses was concerned about potential lawsuits over the shoes.

Concerns about flying shoes aside, what comes out of the krewe members' hands is almost always unique. Examples include plush red lips and glass beads -- hardly the kind of things you'd see male krewes tossing.

"Men are into more masculine things," Kepner says. Gorman agrees, noting that her group strictly adheres to Jefferson Parish's rule of no drinking on floats (no one vouches for male krewes doing that) and adding that no Isis member will ever throw obscene beads because it wouldn't reflect "an image of a ladies' organization."

Rosenberg feels that women just aren't motivated to celebrate the way some men are. "Maybe this isn't a good thing to say, but women aren't really anxious to throw underwear. And we're not asking anyone to show their private parts."

That said, the female captains universally say they enjoy the men's krewes. At the same time, they don't want men in their krewes. In fact, according to Arthur Hardy, a controversial 1992 New Orleans ordinance was amended to preserve single-gender parading organizations.

During the City Council hearings on the infamous anti-discrimination ordinance introduced by then-Councilwoman Dorothy Mae Taylor, female krewes objected to a provision that would ban discrimination by Mardi Gras krewes on the basis of gender.

"That meant that the female krewes would have to take men in if they applied," Hardy explains. "Venus and all the ladies' krewes said, 'We love men, but they are not going to dress with us or be in our floats. They can meet us at the end of the parade.' The ordinance was actually amended to allow for single-gender krewes."

What convinced the council to rewrite the ordinance? Maybe it was the signs some krewe members carried -- one of them read, "No penis in Venus."

Sadly, 1992 saw Venus' final parade. For several years thereafter, some former members rode in the Okeanos parade, but it's not the same. And last year, Cleopatra did not parade because of a shortage of police protection after Katrina. It will, however, take to the streets this year.

Gorman, who rode in a mixed-gender krewe before joining Isis, says it's just easier emotionally to ride in a single-gender organization.

"I've found with the mixed groups that you would be riding down the street with a husband and wife next to you and the husband would throw some beads to a pretty girl," Gorman says. "The wife would have a fit and would just go on from there. You don't see that kind of fighting on a single-gender float."

click to enlarge There is no king of the Krewe of Cleopatra. "Cleopatra rules - alone. All of our ladies are queens," says Joyce Kepner, who - has been captain of the krewe since she founded it in 1972. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • There is no king of the Krewe of Cleopatra. "Cleopatra rules alone. All of our ladies are queens," says Joyce Kepner, who has been captain of the krewe since she founded it in 1972.
click to enlarge Staci Rosenberg founded the Krewe of Muses after watching - a friend live it up as a rider in Druids in 2000. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Staci Rosenberg founded the Krewe of Muses after watching a friend live it up as a rider in Druids in 2000.
click to enlarge About 900 women will ride in Iris' parade this year. The - procession always maintains a family-oriented theme and - demeanor. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • About 900 women will ride in Iris' parade this year. The procession always maintains a family-oriented theme and demeanor.
click to enlarge The Krewe of Isis' ball is just one of the many events the - groups holds throughout the year; it also has weekly bingo - nights and other events. - WALLY PORTER
  • Wally Porter
  • The Krewe of Isis' ball is just one of the many events the groups holds throughout the year; it also has weekly bingo nights and other events.
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