Susanna Madora Salter – The First Woman Mayor

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At left, Mrs. Salter in 1887, at the age of 27. At right, Mrs. Salter in 1954, on her 94th birthday. Photos courtesy of Mrs. Salter and Mr. Billington.

Can you believe that it’s been 129-years since Americans elected the first woman mayor? And now we have a woman running for President. Alas, even with the political progress of women, politics were strife with nefarious actions even way back.

While it seems that it’s been forever since this election coup for our fair segment of the population, I was dismayed to see that this achievement was perpetuated in jest.

Susanna Madora Salter wasn’t unfamiliar with gubernatorial processes. When the town she and her husband lived in, Argonia, Kansas, incorporated in 1885, her father, Oliva Kinsey, was elected at the town’s first mayor. Susanna’s husband was the city clerk.

Two years later, Kanas legislature enacted a law that made women in first, second, and third class cities eligible to vote. The women of the local Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), organized in Argonia since 1883, were excited. They chose to make enforcement of the state’s prohibition law a major issue of the city election. Mrs. Salter presided at the WCTU’s meeting, in the absence of their president, and the group selected a slate of men that they felt were worthy of the town’s offices.

A certain faction of men in the town objected to the role of women in the field of politics. Twenty of them gathered in the back room of a local restaurant for a secret caucus. They drew up a slate of candidates identical with that of the WCTU. Except, for the office of mayor, they substituted Mrs. Salter’s name. They assumed that the women would automatically vote for the WCTU slate of names and that men would not vote for a women. Thus, Mrs. Salter would only end up with the twenty votes of the devious men in the back room and the local Temperance Union would be embarrassed as a political organization.

Mrs. Salter was chosen to be the butt of the joke because she was the only officer of the WCTU that was eligible for office. The others all lived outside the town limits.

When voters appeared on the morning of the election, they were surprised to see ballots with Mrs. Salter’s name on them. The Republican party sent a delegation to the Salter’s house. They found her in the midst of doing the family’s wash. They explained the trick to her and asked if she’d accept the office if elected. She stated that she would. The delegates then said, “All right, we will elect you and just show those fellows who framed up this deal a thing or two.”

Records show that Mr. Salter wasn’t happy when he went to vote and discovered his wife’s name on the ballot. When he returned home and discovered that his wife had consented to serve, if elected, even was even more perturbed. It’s reported that at four o’clock in the afternoon, Mrs. Salter went to the polls, with her parents, and voted. As it wasn’t proper to vote for oneself, Mrs. Salter left the ballot for mayor unmarked.

Enough members of the WCTU voted for Mrs. Salter, ignoring their own recommended candidate, that instead of Mrs. Salter receiving only the twenty votes of the pranksters, she ended up with a two-thirds majority win.

Instead of embarrassing the local WCTU in an effort to humiliate women, instead, Kansas had a significant milestone for women as Argonia elected the first woman mayor.

Mrs. Salter presided over the town and conducted the duties of her office in a professional and commendable manner, even giving birth to another child while in office. She received the grand monetary salary of $1 a year, and when her term was over, returned home and continued her life of wife to an attorney and mother to eventually nine children. But always, she remained active in political and religious affairs.

The Salter’s moved to Oklahoma in 1893 where her husband practiced law and established a newspaper. After her husband’s death in 1916, Mrs. Salter moved the family to Norman, Oklahoma. In 1933, the town of Argonia honored Mrs. Salter with a bronze plaque on a stone base in the public square, with the appropriate ceremony.

Mrs. Salter remained in Norman the rest of her life where she remained active and independent. She died two weeks after her 101st birthday, March 17, 1961. She was buried in Argonia, the place of her landmark election.

 

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