Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Mary E.W. Risteau (1890-1978)
MA SC 3520-12331

Biography:

Born in Towson, Maryland on April 24, 1890.  Daughter of William McGlocklen and Mary Elizabeth (Amoss) Risteau.  Resided at "Eden Manor," Jarrettsville, Maryland.  Attended Town High School, graduated 1907; The Johns Hopkins University (math), 1917; The University of Baltimore, LL.B., 1938. Unmarried.  Died in Cooptown, Harford County, Maryland, July 24, 1978.  Buried in William Watters Memorial Church cemetery, Cooptown, Maryland.

After graduation from high school, Mary became a teacher at Parkville Elementary School and Gilford Elementary School, teaching from 1908 until 1917.  In 1917, she chaired a committee of teachers to have Maryland elementary school children take up a collection in order to buy a portrait of Cecil's Calvert and present it to Governor Emerson C. Harrington at the State House in 1918.  During her years as a teacher, she was secretary of the Baltimore County Teachers' Association and was a member of the board of directors of the Baltimore County Teachers' Retirement Association.  After 1917 she gave up teaching in order to manage a family farm in Sharon, Maryland.  Her passion, however, remained with the school system and with finding a way to improve conditions and to raise funds for Harford County schools.  Campaigning on that issue, she was elected the first woman member of the Maryland House of Delegates in 1921.  There she served on the Education Committee, Agriculture Committee, Library Committee, and the Chesapeake Bay and Its Tributaries Committee.  She remained a member of the House of Delegates, (D) Harford County, from 1922 to 1924, and again from 1931 to 1933, and from 1951 to 1954.  She was instrumental in passing the Administration Bill that granted women the right to serve in high public offices in Maryland.  She also helped pass the Cooperative Association Law.  During her second term she worked to pass the so-called "Equalization Plan," a plan to institute a minimum teacher's salary and a to provide a state subsidy for the poorer counties.  She also supported school bond issues, the Equalization Fund Program Act, and the establishment of the State Teacher's College at Salisbury.  She fought for the Prohibition Bill and the Race Track Bill because she believed that good morals could not be legislated.  During her last term in the House of Delegates, she was a member of the Ways and Means Committee, the Committee on Education, and the Agriculture Committee.  In 1922, Governor Albert C. Ritchie appointed her the first woman on the Maryland State Board of Education, where she served until 1938.  Governor Ritchie also appointed her to a state-wide Agricultural Committee and to the Maryland Tercentenary Commission.  Upon her 1934 election to the Maryland Senate, (D) Harford County, she became the first woman to serve in that body and did so until 1937.  She was a member of the Federal Relations Committee, the Temperance Committee, and the Finance Committee; she was also chair of the Committee of Agriculture and Labor and vice-chair of the Education Committee.  In the Maryland Senate, she sponsored bills that promoted women's rights as well a soil conservation.  In 1936 she was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.  She resigned her position in the senate on December 1, 1937, when she was appointed clerk of Circuit Court of Harford County and became the first woman to hold that position, which she held for one year.  In the spring of 1937, she briefly considered running for a seat in the United States Senate.  Her friend and former colleague in the General Assembly, Frederick Lee Cobourn, remarked at the time that, "There is no doubt that she is immensely popular and, in my opinion, with the possible exception of Herbert R. O'Conor, has the largest individual following of anyone in public life in Maryland today."  ("Risteau Versus Tydings?"  The Baltimore Sun, 20 May 1937.)  From 1939 to 1940 she served as the first woman State Commissioner of Loans. In 1940 she was elected president of the Maryland Order of Women Legislators and in 1942 she became vice-president of the National Order of Women Legislators.

She was a member of the Harford Democratic Club, the Maryland Tercentenary Committee, the Harford County Federation of Rural Women's Clubs, the Harford County Heart Association, the Jarrettsville Fire Department Auxiliary, and the Forest Hill Chapter of the Grange (a fraternal group for farmers).  In 1922 she worked to integrate local Rural Homemakers' Clubs into one county-wide organization and served as its president until 1931.  She was also a member and organist at the Christ Episcopal Church in Forest Hill.

In 1922, the legislature appropriated five hundred dollars to have Miss Risteau's portrait painted.  It was not until 1932 that she found the time to sit for the portrait, which hung in the chamber of the House of Delegates at the State House for many years and today hangs in the first floor of the Legislative Services Building in Annapolis.  A second portrait has long hung in the courthouse in Bel Air, and the Harford County offices in Bel Air are named for this "woman of firsts."

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