The Stackpole women: Syrena Stackpole

Syrena Stackpole. (Credit: Suffolk County Historical Society)
Syrena Stackpole. (Credit: Suffolk County Historical Society)

At the top of Riverhead Town justice candidate Jeanmarie Costello’s campaign website is a tab featuring the question: “Who was Syrena Stackpole and why should I care?” 

On the inside page are a few brief facts about Ms. Stackpole and a Newsday profile on the former Riverhead Town justice, who died in 1983 at the age of 94.

Syrena Stackpole is the only female justice in the Town of Riverhead’s more than 200 years of history — a distinction she will soon lose since there are two female candidates on the ballot in next month’s town election.

Born in Riverhead Dec. 9, 1888, Ms. Stackpole was the second child of George and Mary Stackpole. The valedictorian of Riverhead High School’s Class of 1903 — at age 14 — she graduated from Wellesley College in Massachusetts and, like her father, briefly pursued a career in education.

Ms. Stackpole made headlines in 1909 when, as a vice principal in the Bayport school district, she told the principal he was “no gentleman” because he smoked cigars. After the principal approached the Board of Education to say he would resign if Ms. Stackpole did not tender her resignation, the board requested she step down. She was fired after refusing to resign but later filed an appeal and was reinstated with back pay. She then quit anyway.

After earning her law degree from New York University, Ms. Stackpole became the first woman admitted to the Suffolk County Bar in 1919. Nine years later, she became the first woman in the county to open her own law office. She practiced law for the remainder of her life.

“I’ve enjoyed my career very much and I’ve never felt discriminated against,” she told Newsday in a 1967 article about the small number of female attorneys in Suffolk County. She added that she did not like the word “woman” being used as a prefix to her occupation.

Still, Ms. Stackpole achieved many firsts. Perhaps the biggest came in 1931, when she was elected to the Riverhead Town Board as a justice, becoming the first woman ever voted into public office in New York State. She served just one four-year term, saying she preferred to practice law. In her short time on the board, Ms. Stackpole was involved in planning out Riverhead’s sewer system.

She pursued public office again a decade later but lost her bid for New York State Assembly in a landslide. Unlike her parents, who were active in Republican politics, Ms. Stackpole was a registered Democrat.

She was heavily involved in alumni relations for Wellesley College, where she attended 63 reunions, even offering gratis legal work setting up wills for fellow graduates. Since 1982, the college has presented an annual alumnae award in her name.

After Ms. Stackpole’s death from complications following a stroke, former Riverhead News-Review managing editor Eric Berger published a eulogy for his friend.

“I hesitate to use the word feisty in describing her,” he wrote. “That lacks the dignity that was ever present in her bearing, but she held strong opinions that she was always glad to express in no uncertain terms.”

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