Women’s Roles in Early 20th Century New Orleans Carnival and Society

Over the decades, New Orleans’ citizens have become involved in cultural and social matters due to its unique colonial history. The elite women of society often have also been openly involved in the customs related to the carnival season in the history of New Orleans. These elite women of New Orleans society have always played direct and integral roles in preserving the true nature of celebratory Carnival festivities. Without these women’s direct contributions, the well-known historical importance of public tradition in New Orleans would not be possible.

The public face of Mardi Gras in New Orleans has been parades put on by men’s “krewes” for generations of no females permitted. Although females took part behind the scenes, all-male crews meant just that-no females permitted. Since the beginning, women have been very active participants in Carnival. No doubt, these men immediately signed up their wives, sisters, mothers, and daughters into their balls. As Carnival festivities combined with the city’s debutante season, the women began to play a more prominent role as queens and Mardi Gras courts. Since Carnival celebrations became the basis for the city’s debutante season, women’s roles went from entirely in the background to more prominent. The elite families formally introduced their daughters to society in one or more balls or cotillions in many Southern cities. Not only did the “krewe” select a “king” for the parades,  they even selected a “queen” and a “court” to attend her. The presence of women in the Carnival organizations became much more significant, with the daughters and granddaughters of the elite families taking an active role in the balls. 

Ballroom Dance During Mardi Gras in New Orleans 1930’s

The Carnival-ball-as-debutante-cotillion tradition became well known in the Twentieth Century, and the ladies themselves wanted their organization. The thought originated in 1917, and by 1922 the Iris Krewe was founded. It is New Orleans’ oldest women’s carnival organization and one of the largest. Keeping high in its tableau ball and parade to the honored Mardi Gras traditions, Iris participants still wear white gloves and masks, retaining the season’s “mystery.” At first, they were not very successful with fame due to the stereotype the elite patriarchal society had created for women. The Krewe takes its name, Iris, from the goddess of the rainbow and the gods’ messenger in classical Greek mythology. Although the Krewe of Iris was the first all-woman Krewe in New Orleans, it was not the first all-woman parade. The Krewe of Venus 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 insisted and continued their parading following World War II. Iris later followed the Krewe of Venus in 1959. 

King and Queen of the Krewe of Venus in New Orleans 1941.

In maintaining the true essence of celebratory Carnival celebrations, these elite women of New Orleans society have always played direct and fundamental roles. The well-known and historical meaning of the public tradition still alive in New Orleans would not be possible without these women’s participation. Because parading through the city and competing in carnival pageants was not the only important role women played in the 1920’s parades.  

Work Cited

Atkins, Jennifer. “‘Using the Bow and the Smile’: Old-Line Krewe Court Femininity in New Orleans Mardi Gras Balls, 1870-1920.” Louisiana History 54, no. 1 (Winter 2013): 5–46.

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening: And Other Stories. OUP Oxford, 2000.

———. The Awakening and Other Stories, 2019.

New Orleans States. “Article: Krewe of Iris.” Accessed December 9, 2020. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=AMNEWS&t=&sort=YMD_date%3AA&fld-nav-0=YMD_date&val-nav-0=1921%20-%201925&fld-base-0=alltext&maxresults=20&val-base-0=iris%20krewe&docref=image/v2%3A1228C1F96EAE924B%40EANX-1230568271385780%402423093-1230167E92725DC8%4012-1230167E92725DC8%40.

“Queen of Krewe Momus.” Accessed November 23, 2020. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=AMNEWS&t=&sort=YMD_date%3AD&fld-base-0=alltext&maxresults=20&val-base-0=krewe%20pageants&fld-nav-0=YMD_date&val-nav-0=1920%20-%201922&docref=image/v2%3A1228C1F96EAE924B%40EANX-122E005CB7792C00%402422368-122DC9DD6922D688%400-122DC9DD6922D688%40.

Wicker, Ragan. “NINETEENTH-CENTURY NEW ORLEANS AND A CARNIVAL OF WOMEN,” 2006, 72.

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