TDIH: Susanna Salter, first female Mayor
On this day in 1961, Susanna Salter passes away. She is best known for her tenure as the first female Mayor in United States history. Some go further, speculating that Salter was the first female Mayor ever, although this latter claim is harder to prove.
Salter was only 27 years old when she was elected.
The young mother didn’t set out to be Mayor. To the contrary, a few men in the small town of Argonia, Kansas, had put her name on the ballot as a joke. They thought the stunt would embarrass women in the town. Needless to say, the move backfired.
Several events came together, creating the perfect storm that elected Ms. Salter in 1887.
First, women in Kansas had just obtained the right to vote in municipal elections. The move created a bit of a stir, as you can imagine. At about the same time, a group known as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was founded. They were Prohibitionists, among other things. Some anti-Prohibitionists began to worry that the Union would hold too much political power once its members could vote.
Adding to the mix, elections could be much less organized than they are today. Candidates did not register before Election Day, although groups might agree on individuals that they were willing to support. The WCTU had already identified its slate of (male) preferred candidates. Now, a small group of 20 men—“wets”—decided to create some trouble.
Instead of the WCTU’s preferred mayoral candidate, they created a ballot substituting Salter’s name. She was an officer of the WCTU who happened to live within the city limits and was thus eligible to be Mayor.
“They reasoned that the notion of Susanna Madora Salter, a 27-year-old wife and mother, becoming mayor was so absurd that only the WCTU extremists would vote for her, exposing their movement as marginal and idiotic,” History Professor Gil Troy explains.
You can imagine the flurry when Salter’s name was discovered on the ballot. A group of Republicans rushed to her home, surprising her away from her laundry, to see if she’d intended to run. She hadn’t, of course, but she indicated her willingness to serve if elected.
“All right,” they said, according to Monroe Billington, who later described these events for the Kansas Historical Quarterly, “we will elect you and just show those fellows who framed up this deal a thing or two.”
In the end, Republicans in the town endorsed her, as did the WCTU. Salter won two-thirds of the vote and served as Mayor of Argonia for a full term of one year. Far from embarrassing women, the wets had helped Salter to shatter a glass ceiling.
Nevertheless, Salter took a fair amount of flak from critics around the country. Her husband, too, was shocked at first, but by the end of the year he was proudly joking about being “the husband of the Mayor.”
“She was apparently a very competent parliamentarian known for short meetings and tolerating no nonsense,” the Better Cities Project says of her time in office.
What a quintessentially AMERICAN story, isn’t it? Salter wasn’t looking for fame or power. She didn’t set out to be Mayor. She was simply a regular American who stood up to serve when asked. When her service was done, she returned to her regular life and lived out the rest of her days in near obscurity.
How much better was the country when this attitude prevailed?
Perhaps today is a good day to remember America’s forgotten heroes—the ones who rarely make it into history books: Men and women who served for love of country, neither expecting nor receiving any other reward.
God bless this great country of ours!
Enjoyed this post? More stories of American
heroines can be found on my website, HERE.
David J. Wishart, Encyclopedia of the Great Plains (2004)
Gil Troy, How a Sexist Prank Elected America’s First Female Mayor (Daily Beast; Aug. 29, 2019)
Kat Eschner, 130 Years Ago, Men Against Women’s Suffrage Put Susanna Salter’s Name on the Ballot (Smithsonian Mag; April 4, 2017)
Lawrence Reed, Remembering Susanna M. Salter: The first woman mayor (Better Cities Project; April 4, 2021)
Monroe Billington, Susanna Madora Salter First Woman Mayor (Kansas Historical Quarterly; Autumn 1954) (reprinted HERE)
Paul D. Buchanan, The American Women's Rights Movement: A Chronology of Events and of Opportunities from 1600 to 2008 (2009)
Susanna Madora Salter: First woman mayor in the U.S. 1860-1961 (Kansas Historical Society)
Travis M. Andrews, America’s first female mayor was elected 130 years ago. Men nominated her as a cruel joke (Wash. Post; April 7, 2017)