Women krewes march, dance into Mardi Gras history

Interview with Pussyfooter founder Camille Baldassar Pussyfooter founder Camille Baldassar talks about how the group began.

When New Orleans' first all-female Mardi Gras krewe struck out on its route in 1941, those in the crowd were so shocked to see women on floats, many angry bystanders threw eggs in scandalized protest.

Now, 75 years later, the streets of New Orleans during Carnival are filled with women not only leading and populating entire parades, but dressed in suggestive, bawdy costumes, dancing in tights, drinking in the streets and celebrating the season.

"There's just an unbelievable sisterhood and bond between our members," said Julie Lea, the founder of the Krewe of Nyx, which jumps to "super-krewe" status in 2016. "There are 4,000 ladies waiting to get in. We've hit on a formula that is working well: Stay humble, and have a good time."

Having a good time as a lady on parade has been a long, hard time in the making. Even in an already traditionally segregated space like Carnival, women have routinely been kept apart from the mainstream. Whether it's parades rolling down St. Charles, Cajun courir de Mardi Gras in southwest Louisiana or the tradition of walking parades and second-lines in New Orleans' African-American neighborhoods, women have separately had to find their own ways in to these traditions.

"It's not necessarily a political statement," said Carolyn Ware, an associate professor of English at LSU who has extensively studied women's participation in Mardi Gras. "For a few women, it might have been (a statement), but mostly you just see people having fun, and you want to do it. ... That's really about it."

Some of the earliest women who set out to have a good time came from Storyville, the New Orleans Red Light District already known for a particular brand of entertainment. The Baby Dolls began as women in Black Storyville vied for business on Mardi Gras, and the tradition eventually turned into several formalized organizations. One of the most well-known of these groups, the Million-Dollar Baby Dolls, were chartered in 1925.

"Participation in Mardi Gras started with these African-American women as a way of making fun of the circumstances they found themselves in, but also having the ability to make a space for themselves as working class women to have fun," said Dr. Kim Vaz-Deville, who wrote "The Baby Dolls: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition."

"They could do all the work that enabled men to have fun: They could be over the parties, the wardrobe, all the social dimensions, but when it came to who was going to be the face of the organization, women didn't have those opportunities."

At least some organizers of today's all-female dance krewes see similarities between their own traditions and those started by the Baby Dolls.

"All the clubs owe a huge debt to the women-led social aid and pleasure clubs. ... That image of women being able to be sexy and have a different body type really came from black Mardi Gras," said Ann Marie Coviello, who founded the women-led Box of Wine, which turns 20 this year. "That ... very important cultural concept jumped over into white women's parade marching groups."

One of the first women's groups to march with big parade krewes came from Camille Baldassar, who founded the Pussyfooters.

"Camille saw something so ahead of its time. ... Camille had this idea about parading being body-positive and woman-positive, and she named her krewe the Pussyfooters," Coviello said. "It was picking up this idea that it's OK to talk about vaginas. It's OK to talk about body image. It's OK to be older and sexy and it's OK to be heavier or bigger."

Baldassar herself remembers the moment she developed the idea for the Pussyfooters, the now 16-year-old dancing krewe for women older than 30 who wear suggestive pink and orange costumes.

"What really caught my enthusiasm were those school dancing troupes," she remembered. "I so much wanted to jump in and be in that number, as they say. I couldn't, age-wise. I was long out of high school, and I was watching Thoth parade."

Baldassar and several girlfriends who were interested in the idea of marching slowly developed the idea, inspired by productions of "The Vagina Monologues" they'd been seeing around the same time.

"We were just using the language, like 'vagina, vagina, vagina,' and we were having these impassioned conversations about what we were seeing. ... We were really inspired by ... these ideas of empowerment, and we also appreciated that we have the freedom to do this," she said. "We knew we were lucky to be able to dress up and just be silly and risque and have joy."

Baldassar has happily watched a number of female groups follow suit, like the Camel Toe Lady Steppers, the Bearded Oysters and the Muff-a-lottas.

"The more, the merrier," Baldassar said, who had the chance to see from the audience the Pussyfooters march in Thoth a few years ago. "I understood how much joy they bring -- we bring -- and we continue to do that. Throughout all the hard work that goes on ... we maintain that spirit of happiness and joy dancing in the streets at Mardi Gras."