Local women take lead in Mummers history
Carly Q. Romalino, Courier-Post Published 1:54 p.m. ET Dec. 30, 2016 | Updated 2:06 p.m. ET Dec. 30, 2016
PHILADELPHIA - The "suits," sequined and feathered Mummers costumes, were neatly organized on clothing racks and bins inside Duffy String Band's Kensington Club Thursday afternoon.
The Cedar Street clubhouse, tucked in a neighborhood of skinny streets and rowhouses, was surprisingly calm with two days to go until the String Band Super Bowl, the New Year's Day Mummers Parade from Philadelphia's City Hall to South Philly, where the oldest folk tradition in the country originated in 1901.
The band's leader Cheryl Crowe cleaned the floors, while her daughter Trish Crowe mopped behind the bar, preparing it for a hopeful victory party Jan. 1. Women sat at the bar, taking a breather from pre-parade prep.
In historically male-dominated organizations, women often play supporting roles for the male musicians in the band, creating costumes, making food, and applying makeup for the show on New Year's morning.
At Duffy, women play every role, from creating the New Year's Day routine to performing it in front of City Hall.
"We're 85 percent women," said Crowe, who owns and runs the band.
"If I didn't take women, I wouldn't be in existence."
Half the bands marching Broad Street this weekend are now co-ed, according to Philadelphia Mummers String Band Association President Tom Loomis.
Of the 17 existing string bands, eight have female members "taking a suit," this year. In Mummers slang, those members will perform for the judges this year.
In addition to Duffy, women play music for Hegeman, Greater Overbrook, Pennsport, Uptown and two bands based in South Jersey — Broomall in National Park and Durning in Gloucester City.
Twenty-five years ago, that didn't happen at all, said Loomis, of Gloucester Township.
"There was never a rule that said women couldn't march," explained Loomis, a bass saxophone player for all-male Woodland String band.
He expects the string bands who haven't already allowed women to join, likely won't.
"I don't see that changing any time soon," he said.
"There's something to be said for tradition, too."
In the 1970s, when Crowe's father ran Duffy, she set out to change tradition.
Crowe, from North Wildwood, grew up in the Cedar Street clubhouse.
"I said to my dad, 'That's not right, not taking girls,'" she told the Courier-Post.
She marched with the band as a playing member in 1970.
But the bass fiddle and banjo player wasn't the first woman on Broad Street New Year's Day, she said.
Talented women secretly paraded in the early days of the tradition, Crowe said, remembering a woman — a talented banjo player — who pretended to be a man to parade with Duffy under her father's leadership in 1959.
In 1982, South Jersey String Band put the first female string band captain on Broad Street — Dorothy Pleise.
On New Year's Day 2017, two of Duffy's percussionists — Katie Anastasi, a bass drummer, and Megan Flaherty, a snare drummer — will make Mummers history as the first female drumming duo ever to hit the parade route.
"I don't really think it's a big deal, I guess because I've grown up here and it's normal," said Flaherty, a humble Pennsauken High School junior.
"Everything men can do, women can do 10 times better."
Crowe made history in 2011. She and her sister were the first women ever inducted into the Mummers Hall of Fame in 2011.
"And it's not easy to get into the String Band Hall of Fame," Loomis said.
Crowe and Heather Leone of Uptown String Band are officers with the String Band Association.
"The inclusion isn't just in costume, it's in running the band, it's in running the association, it's in the hall of fame," Loomis said.
"Where women are involved, it's big time now."
The string band division is a fifth of the full Mummers picture. It's one of five divisions in the parade. Fancy Brigade clubs, which perform two shows at the Pennsylvania Convention Center New Year's Day, have a vibrant culture of co-ed participation, according to Kim Foley, a dancer with the 2016 champions Golden Crown.
"There are only two clubs without women in the Fancy Brigade division right now," said Foley, of Cherry Hill.
Of the 12 clubs, the Shooting Stars and Jokers remain men-only organizations.
Foley was 16 in her first parade in 1988, a decade before the Fancy Brigade Division was moved inside on Arch Street.
Golden Crown was one of the first in the 1980s to allow women to perform, she said.
For Foley, "there was never a setback."
"Women evolved in the parade. They became much more than the wives and girlfriends. They wanted to participate," she said.
"We play a huge part. We help the brigades survive."
Carly Q. Romalino; (856) 486-2476; firstname.lastname@example.org