Jonathan Zimmerman: For Mummers, A Strut Forward

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory" (Yale University Press). He can be reached at

Men dressed as women - at the Mummers Parade! Can you believe it?

In November, parade organizers announced that 10 self-described "drag queens" would accompany the String Bands along Broad Street from Washington Avenue to City Hall today. They're also expected to perform at the Convention Center between the acts of the Fancy Brigades.

Philadelphians greeted the news with a collective yawn, because cross-dressing has long been a staple of Mummery. Starting in the 1920s, feminine-attired "wenches" paraded down Broad Street pai with tuxedo-clad "dudes." And until the 1970s, when women were finally allowed to participate in the parade, the Comic Division had a separate category for female impersonators.

But the wenches and dudes also wore blackface, adding a note of bigotry to the event. And real transvestites - as opposed to people who cross-dress just for the day - have faced extraordinary prejudice in Philadelphia and elsewhere across history, which makes the Mummers' embrace of them all the more remarkable....

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