A native Marylander, political activist Mary Eliza Watters Risteau was born in Towson. Following her graduation from Towson High School, she taught in the Baltimore County school system until she moved to a farm in Harford County. There she began a new career of managing a dairy farm. Later, at the urging of Governor Albert Ritchie, she earned a law degree from the University of Baltimore Law School.
Education and agricultural matters were areas of major concern to her throughout her political life. One year after women won the right to vote, Risteau entered into the political arena and became the first women to be elected to the Maryland House of Delegates. She was appointed to committees on agriculture, education, libraries and the Chesapeake Bay. It was during her second term that she worked on the passage of a successful Equalization Plan, a plan that included a minimum teacher's salary schedule and a State subsidy for the poor counties.
In 1935, after serving three terms in the House of Delegates, Risteau was elected to the State Senate where she was chairman of the Agriculture Committee and a member of the Education and the Finance Committees. Risteau was the first woman to preside over both chambers of the Maryland General Assembly.
Among Risteau's other firsts were: first woman to serve on the State Board of Education; establishing the first Retirement System for Baltimore County school teachers; first woman Clerk of a Circuit Court (Harford County); and first woman State Commissioner of Loans.
She is credited with paving the way for Maryland women in politics and education, though her achievements were accomplished not in a urban setting but in a rural one, where the environment was much more socially and politically conservative.
Biography courtesy of the Maryland Commission for Women, 1988.