It’s the Year of the Woman in Bel Air
Celebrating Mary Risteau, the first woman elected to the Maryland House of Delegates
Photo credit: Historical Society of Harford County
In 1922, just two years after the 19th amendment empowered women with the right to vote, Harford County citizens elected Jarrettsville resident Mary Eliza Watters Risteau to the Maryland House of Delegates.
Critics saw her campaign as scandalous. However, Risteau or “Miss Mary” to her Harford county neighbors and friends, became the first woman elected to the Maryland House of Delegates.
In her lifetime, Mary Risteau was the first woman to step into many public roles in Maryland.
Voters later elected her as the first woman in the State Senate. She was also the first woman to serve on Maryland’s State Board of Education. Risteau was the first woman delegate to the 1936 Democratic National Convention, held in Philadelphia. In 1937, the Third Circuit Court of Harford County appointed Risteau as the first female Clerk of the Circuit Court of Harford County.
She was a groundbreaking career politician at a time when most women had few career choices. She was elected to the House of Delegates again in 1924, 1931 and 1933, and to the Senate, serving through 1937.
Never described as a political firebrand, Risteau was instead described as plainly dressed, quiet and cautious. She had a reputation as knowledgeable about many topics and deeply passionate about the art and science of farming, protections for the Chesapeake Bay fishing and oyster industries, libraries, the well-being of teachers and children, as well as the importance of fair government. She was influential in passing the bill that changed the name of the state’s Normal Schools to Teachers Colleges.
She lost a Congressional bid in 1937, but Harford County soon appointed her as its Clerk of the Circuit Court. This position in downtown Bel Air, closer to home, allowed her to balance her farm duties with her professional career more easily.
When talking with others about her life, she reminded them that she had, and lost, a twin brother and it greatly influenced her. She told a biographer that “I was born with equal rights. I had a twin brother.”
Mary Risteau died in 1978 and is buried in the William Watters Memorial Church cemetery in Jarrettsville.
Today, the Mary E. Risteau State Office Building in downtown Bel Air carries on the spirit of her legal, political and agriculture career and life in Harford. It is the home of the District Court and various state offices. Bel Air’s popular Farmers’ Market takes place in its parking lot each Saturday between April and December.