Mary Eliza Watters Risteau
By Kathi Santora, Maryland Women’s Heritage Center Board Member and Volunteer Writer
The Maryland Women of “Firsts”
Just one year after the 19th amendment provided women with the right to vote, Harford citizens elected Mary Eliza Watters Risteau to the Maryland House of Delegates. Clearly, they recognized a born leader.
Ms. Risteau or “Miss Mary” to her Harford County neighbors and friends, was the first woman elected to the Maryland House of Delegates. Not resting on that distinction alone, she was later the first woman in the State Senate as well as on the State Board of Education. A career politician at a time when most women had few career choices, Ms. Risteau was also the first woman delegate to the Democratic National Convention, held in 1936 in Philadelphia. The Third Circuit Court of Harford County appointed Ms. Risteau as Clerk of the Circuit Court of Harford County in 1937. Again, she was the first woman to hold that position.
As with most natural leaders, Mary Risteau showed signs of early activism. She was born on April 4, 1890 and later began her career as a Baltimore County teacher. She was active in the Towson High Alumni Association, the Baltimore County Teachers Association and the Baltimore County Teachers Retirement Association. She is remembered for collecting $600 in pennies from students to purchase a portrait of Cecelius Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore, from its painter, Florence MacCubbin. The painting hangs today in the Maryland House Chamber.
In 1917 she became a Harford County resident when a series of family events and deaths caused her to take over management of Eden Manor, the family farm in Sharon (near Jarrettsville).
Her House of Delegates election in 1922 started her path to a visible political career. She served in the House and Senate through 1937. During that time, she earned a law degree from the University of Baltimore.
During 1937, Ms. Risteau also briefly sought the nomination for the congressional seat from Maryland’s second district. She didn’t shirk from hardline campaigning, reminding potential voters that the incumbent, Street Baldwin, frequented Pimlico (Maryland) horse races and Florida betting rings instead of attending to his congressional duties.
Today, the Mary E.W. Risteau District Court/Multi-Service Center carries on the spirit of her legal, political and agriculture career and life in Harford. It is the home of the District Court and State offices. Bel Air’s popular Farmer’s Market takes place in its parking lot.
Mary Risteau died in 1978 and is buried in William Watters Memorial Church cemetery in Jarrettsville.