March 4, 2019

Maryland Senate Women’s History Month Celebration Series: Remembering Senator Mary Watters Risteau (1890-1978)

When considering women who broke ground in Annapolis, it’s hard to find anyone who accomplished more firsts than did Senator Mary Watters Risteau. Elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1921 and to the Maryland Senate in 1935, Risteau was the first woman to serve in either chamber. Not just electorally, but also bureaucratically, Risteau also would be the first woman to serve as a member of the State Board of Education, the first female Commissioner of Loans, and the first female Clerk of the Circuit Court System upon her selection by then Governor Albert C. Ritchie in 1938.

Born on April 24, 1890 (just 25 years after the American Civil War), Risteau was a truly accomplished academic with a passion for education. A graduate of Towson High School at age 17, Risteau would go on to complete an advanced course of study in Mathematics at Johns Hopkins University in 1917 and attain her law degree from the University of Baltimore in 1938. As was the custom for many educated women of her day, she pursued a career in teaching and did so after leaving Johns Hopkins. She would teach in the Baltimore County School System until she would ultimately move to Jarrettsville where she was presented an opportunity to manage a dairy farm.

So now a teacher and dairy farm manager by trade, Risteau lived in an era where women held little political influence and few avenues for those sorts of aims. That would all change on August 18, 1920 when the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution would be ratified and women thus granted the right to vote. Just one short year later, Risteau would make electoral history as the first woman elected to the Maryland House of Delegates representing her home of Jarrettsville and all of Harford County. Some fourteen years later, she would again make history as the first woman elected to the Maryland State Senate in 1935.

Known as a thoughtful legislator throughout her career, Risteau would focus on issues dear to her including education, agriculture, and women’s rights. She would advocate for improved teacher salaries, the establishment of teacher pensions, and for educational assistance to Maryland’s most impoverished jurisdictions with a perspective unseen before in the Maryland General Assembly. She would serve on the Committees on Education and Agriculture and prove an asset unlike few before her or since.

Mary Risteau passed away in 1978 at the age of 88 leaving behind a legacy paralleled by very few. She broke through barriers and changed Maryland’s history. She wasn’t afraid to be the first at anything and, because of that, it made her among the best at many things.