The election of America’s first female mayor began as a cruel joke by men.
Susanna Madora Salter was 27 years old in 1887 when Kansas women attained the right to vote in city elections, according to the Kansas Historical Society. The newfound right applied to Salter, who lived in the Quaker town of Argonia, Kan., where she had moved with her husband, Lewis Salter.
It was likely an exciting time for Salter, who had strong views about how society should be run.
A Women’s Christian Temperance Union, with which Salter was affiliated, formed in Argonia in 1883. It hadn’t been particularly effective given that its members hadn’t previously been able to vote, as Monroe Billington wrote for the Kansas Historical Quarterly.
Now, its members saw a chance to make a difference in the local elections, which were coming up on April 4, 1887, 130 years ago this week.
One of the group’s main goals was the prohibition of alcohol.
The women called a caucus one evening before the election with plans of choosing several prohibitionist men to run for office. With their votes behind these nominees, perhaps the WCTU could finally earn some political clout in the town of about 400 people.
Meanwhile, a couple of anti-prohibitionist men, nicknamed “wets,” attended the meeting. They heckled and mocked the women in an attempt to intimidate them into choosing different candidates. But the women didn’t fold.
The “wets” came up with a new plan and called a secret caucus.
Back then, candidates did not register before Election Day, nor were elections particularly organized. “Partisans distributed ballots they printed listing their preferred candidates for voters to drop into the ballot box,” historian Gil Troy wrote in the Daily Beast.
So these “wets” simply wrote their own ballot to distribute to townspeople.
“They drew up a slate of candidates identical with that of the W.C.T.U., except that for the office of mayor they substituted Mrs. Salter’s name,” Billington wrote.
“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,” Troy wrote.
The morning of the vote, the plan seemed to be going well. Townspeople indeed met the ballots with confusion.
A delegation visited Salter at her home, where she was washing clothes for the family, and explained what had happened. They gave her the chance to remove her name from the ballot, but she rejected the offer.
Empowered by her decision, the WCTU forsook their own candidate and voted for her in droves. She won, pulling in more than 60 percent of the vote.
“Instead of humiliating the women, they had elected the first woman mayor in the country,” Billington wrote. “When the results were known, Mrs. Salter’s husband adjusted himself to the situation, and, with a certain amount of pride, made jokes about being the ‘husband of the mayor.’”
Word spread quickly, and Salter received notes of both elation and fury from around the country.
One of the latter, according to the Daily Beast, came from an anonymous writer on a card decorated with a hand-drawn pair of men’s underwear. It read:
When a woman leaves her natural sphere,
And without her sex’s modesty or fear
Assays the part of man,
She, in her weak attempts to rule,
But makes herself a mark for ridicule,
A laughing-stock and sham.
Article of greatest use is to her then
Something worn distinctively by men —
A pair of pants will do.
Thus she will plainly demonstrate
That Nature made a great mistake
In sexing such a shrew.”
At one WCTU meeting sometime later, according to a 1940 New York Times story, Susan B. Anthony congratulated Salter on her victory and said, “Why, you look just like any other woman!”
Salter served only a few years before moving to Oklahoma, but she left behind a shattered glass ceiling — one she hadn’t originally intended to break.
Now, as written in “Guide to the Sunflower State,” guests to the town can view a bronze plaque in front of town hall honoring Salter, who died in 1961 at the age of 101.