From the title Scholars and Gentlemen, one of the essential histories written about the New-York Historical Society and that dates from the 1980s, one might get the wrong impression, that only men played a role in the life of the institution over the course of its 216 years. Yet many women have played significant roles and one of the earliest was Martha J. Lamb (1829-1893).
Lamb–née Martha Johanna Nash–was born in Massachusetts and married Charles A. Lamb in 1852. They moved to Chicago in 1857, but in the mid-1860s Martha left her husband and moved to New York City. Here she began to pursue a career as an author of fiction and of history. Among her initiatives was research that would ultimately lead to perhaps her best-known work, History of the City of New York: Its Origin, Rise and Progress published in subscription form from 1876-1881, and then in two volumes. By that time, Lamb was already respected for her historical work, even to the extent of being admitted as a member of the New-York Historical Society.
Although New-York Historical never explicitly or officially denied admission to women, and women commonly attended New-York Historical events beginning in the 1840s, the fact is that no women were admitted as members through much of the nineteenth century. Though it is not entirely certain, it is believed that it was Martha Lamb who broke that glass ceiling, becoming a member in 1870.
Lamb then pioneered two other accomplishments at New-York Historical. In 1871, she was the first woman to have a paper of hers read at one of the Society’s meetings. The subject was “Mrs. Edward Livingston.” But Lamb did not get to read her own paper; that was read by the Librarian, George Moore. But Lamb would eventually conquer that next step, becoming the first woman to read her work before the Society (or at least the first woman we know to have done so). On November 5, 1878, Lamb delivered her address on “Lyon Gardiner, Founder of the Manor of Gardiner’s Island, the First English Settlement Within the State of New York.”
In the 1870s, several other women followed Lamb into membership at New-York Historical. The institution was surely still not egalitarian by any stretch of the imagination and women would fight to expand their role within it. One needs only a quick glance at today’s New-York Historical Society to see how successful Martha Lamb and her successors were.
[For more on Lamb and her work, see the finding aid to the Martha J. Lamb Papers, 1756-1892 (MS 362).]
This post is by Larry Weimer, Head of Archival Processing, Patricia D. Klingenstein Library.