by Bill Batson
Natalie Couch, the first woman to vote and practice law in Rockland County, lived and held “court” in this distinctive five-peaked tower on South Broadway and Depew Avenue.
Even though a marker erected by the Historical Society of Rockland County records the achievements of Natalie Couch, I walked past the plaque a thousand times before I stopped long enough to comprehend the compelling story of Nyack’s pioneering feminist.
The edifce that would one day house the Couch family was built in 1854 for A.J. Storms of the Storm’s Tub and Pail Factory. Mr. Storms had his house built at this location so that he could keep a watchful eye over his factory that stood on the ground that is today Memorial Park.
In the mid-19th century South Broadway was a mixed-use neighborhood, where manufacturing and agricultural properties stood side-by-side with houses. As property values rose, factories moved further inland to make room for residential development.
From 1875 until 1882 this building was the home of Edwin Stillwell, Captain of the Nyack-Tarrytown Ferry. The views from the third story most have provided a panoramic vista of the Hudson, well suited for a ship captain’s residence.
As fascinating as the image of men and women in period dress in a homeopath’s waiting room under a pyramid shaped roof may be, the medical practice is not the Couch family’s greatest legacy.
That distinction goes to the doctor’s daughter, Natalie. Natalie Couch graduated from Wellesley College in 1907 and was first in her class at Fordham Law School. When the issue of extending the right to vote to women first appeared on the ballot in Rockland County in 1915, the measure lost by 400 votes. The initiative passed two years later and in 1918 Miss Natalie Couch became the first woman to cast a legal vote in our county.
It was just the beginning of an impressive resume of firsts. Natalie Couch was the first woman to:
- Practice law in Rockland County
- Vote in an election in Rockland County
- Serve as Journal Clerk to the New York State Assembly
- Win election as President of the Rockland County Bar Association
- Win election as Vice-Chair of the Rockland County Republican Committee
- Stand for election in a contest between two women (a national first)
From 1942 to 1951, her law offices became temporary meeting place for the New York State Supreme Court and Town Hall for Orangetown, which is why this building is known by many as Couch Court.
Natalie Couch came into a world where she was legally precluded from participating in government and departed life with an obituary in the New York Times in 1956 that described her as New York State’s Republican leader.
When you are confronted with a full accounting of her life story, some legitimate questions come to mind: where is her statue, the street named in her honor or the annual event in her name that would inspire young women to study law and enter public life? Shouldn’t every young girl who walks past this building be given the boost in confidence that the telling of Natalie Couch’s story would instill?
Photo Credit: Bill Coughlin, Historical Society of Rockland
Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives in Nyack, NY. “Nyack Sketch Log: First Woman to Vote in Rockland County Practiced Law Here” © 2019 Bill Batson. Copies of the book can be purchased at billbatsonarts.com.