Born in Martinsville on September 28, 1947, Mary Sue Terry received her undergraduate degree from Westhampton College and a master's degree and a law degree from the University of Virginia. After serving for four years as an assistant commonwealth's attorney in Patrick County and practicing law privately, Terry represented the counties of Henry, Patrick, and Pittsylvania and the city of Martinsville in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1978 until 1985. She supported legislation that established the concept of equitable distribution of marital property in divorce cases and sponsored tougher penalties for drunk drivers.
In 1985, Terry became the first woman elected to statewide office in Virginia and the second woman to serve as a state attorney general in the United States. In her reelection bid in 1989, she became the first elected official in Virginia history to receive more than one million votes. As attorney general, Terry successfully proposed legislation to reform insurance rates and to strengthen laws related to drunk driving, drug abuse, and family violence. She also persuaded the General Assembly to rewrite laws on waste management and clean water. In January 1993, Terry resigned as attorney general to campaign for governor but was defeated in the November general election.
She taught at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond from 1995 until 2001, when she returned to the family farm in Patrick County to practice law.