In 1865, when she was 16 years old, Maritcha Lyons was denied admission to Providence High School because she was Black. She testified before the Rhode Island state legislature to successfully desegregate the city’s school system and went on to become a suffragist, schoolteacher, civil rights activist, and founding member of the Woman’s Loyal Union, one of the first women’s rights and racial justice organizations in the United States.
Portraits of Lyons and her sister Pauline, captured using the ambrotype method of early photography, are among the New York Public Library’s (NYPL) highlights for Women’s History Month, beginning today, March 1. These and other objects currently on view in NYPL’s Treasures exhibition, such as novelist Charlotte Brontë’s writing desk; botanical cyanotypes by photographer Anna Atkins; and Berenice Abbott’s gorgeously abstracted photo of a penicillin mold, center the stories of women well-known and less so.
As part of the monthlong celebration, the library has also unveiled a new reading list featuring 31 books by contemporary women authors, recommending Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s gothic horror novel Mexican Gothic (2020); Samantha Irby’s laugh-out-loud essay collection Wow, No Thank You (2020); and Michelle Obama’s 2018 memoir Becoming, among others. There’s also a list of ten nonfiction titles that shine a spotlight on women throughout history, such as Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s book Never Caught (2017) about Ona Judge, who escaped enslavement from George Washington’s plantation in 1796.
Fittingly, the NYPL will also honor a woman librarian: Kathie Coblentz, who spent more than five decades at the library, notably in the Division of Art, Prints, and Photographs’ special formats processing department. Coblentz, who died in 2021, is the latest to be inducted into NYPL’s “Hall of Femme,” which recognizes women’s trailblazing contributions to librarianship. Every week during the month of March, the library will publish reflections from current staff on these historical figures.
Deirdre Donohue, assistant director of the library’s Wallach Collection, said of Coblentz: “Kathie was a dedicated librarian whose work created catalog and authority records that were the products of detective work, deep research, and scholarly skepticism about assumed facts, leading to truly rich description and access of items in the library’s coffers of great value and importance.”
Several online and in-person events are planned as part of the library’s lineup for Women’s History Month, including the 30th Annual Women’s Jazz Festival beginning March 7 and a series of conversations on Afrofuturism and Black feminism starting on March 9, both at NYPL’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. A complete list of programs and initiatives can be found here.