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Kansas Historical Quarterly - Susanna Madora Salter

First Woman Mayor

by Monroe Billington

Autumn 1954 (Vol. 21, No. 3), pages 173-183
Transcribed by Harriette J. Jensen; HTML editing by Tod Roberts;
digitized with permission of the Kansas Historical Society;
numbers in brackets refer to endnotes at the bottom of the article.

THE TOWN OF ARGONIA in Sumner county, Kansas, became nationally and internationally known in 1887 when the voters of that little Quaker village, with a population of less than five hundred, elected the first woman mayor in America. Mrs. Susanna Salter, who received this honor, was one of a number of women mayors elected during the years after the Civil War when women were renewing their demands for more political rights. [1]

Mrs. Salter was born Susanna Madora "Dora" Kinsey, near Lamira in Belmont county, Ohio, March 2, 1860. Her parents, Oliver Kinsey and Terissa Ann White, were both of Quaker parentage, their ancestors having come to America from England with William Penn's colonists on the ship Welcome. The Kinsey family in successive generations moved form Pennsylvania to Ohio to Kansas, settling in 1872 on an 80-acre farm in the Kaw valley near Silver Lake. There Dora attended district schools until 1878, when she entered Kansas State Agricultural College as a sophomore. [2] She left college because of illness only six weeks before time to graduate. While at Manhattan she had met Lewis Allison Salter, son of former Lt. Gov. Melville J. Salter. Salter was graduated in 1879, and Dora was married to him on September 1, 1880, at Silver Lake. [3]

The young couple moved to Argonia in 1882, where Salter managed a hardware store. The following spring Mrs. Salter gave birth to her second child, the first born in Argonia. A year later Mrs. Salter's parents moved to Argonia and bought the store, which was operated under the firm name of Kinsey & Salter. In the meantime Salter read law with a local attorney and prepared himself for the bar.

The town of Argonia was incorporated in 1885. Mrs. Salter's father, Oliver Kinsey, was its first mayor and her husband was city clerk. In this capacity Salter wrote the ordinances of the town. Two years later the Kansas legislature enacted a law giving the franchise to women in first, second, and third class cities. Since Argonia was third class city, the women there became eligible to vote.

A Woman's Christian Temperance Union had been organized in Argonia in 1883, and with the right to vote, its members made enforcement of the state prohibition law a prime issue of the city election. [4] They called a caucus and selected a ticket of men whom they considered to be worthy of the town's offices, regardless of political labels. In the absence of their president Mrs. Salter presided at this caucus.

A certain group of men in Argonia felt that the field of politics was their exclusive domain and resented the intrusion of women into their affairs. Two of these men had attended the W.C.T.U. caucus and heckled the proceedings. They were "wets," trying to intimidate the W.C.T.U., but when they attempted to nominate a candidate they were voted down.

A secret caucus was called by this faction. Twenty of them met in the back room of a local restaurant and decided to teach these females a lesson. 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. They assumed that the women would vote for the W.C.T.U. slate and that the men would not vote for a woman. They thought if Mrs. Salter got only their 20 votes it would embarrass the W.C.T.U. as a political organization. They also felt that such a move would curb some of the W.C.T.U.'s political activities. Mrs. Salter was chosen to be the butt of the prank because she was the only officer of the W.C.T.U. who was eligible for office, the others living outside the town limits.

This could be done as a surprise because candidates did not have to file before election day. The faction simply had the ballots printed with Mrs. Salter's name on them; of course without her knowledge or consent. Early voters on the morning of the election were shocked, therefore, to find that she was a candidate. The chairman of the Republican party in Argonia immediately sent a delegation to see her. They found her doing the family washing. They explained the trick and then asked if she would accept the office if elected. [5] When Mrs. Salter agreed, they said, "All right, we will elect you and just show those fellows who framed up this deal a thing or two."

All day long they explained the situation and campaigned to get out the vote. Mr. Salter, an early voter, was angered when he discovered his on the ballot. He was even more perturbed when he returned home and found that his wife had consented to serve if elected. Mrs. Salter was undeterred. At 4 P.M. she went to the polls with her parents and voted. It was not considered proper to vote for oneself in those days, so Mrs. Salter left the ballot for mayor unmarked.

By forsaking their own caucus nominee, the members of the W.C.T.U. voted for Mrs. Salter in such numbers that she received a two-thirds majority. Instead of the 20 votes intended for her, the faction had given her the election. Instead of humiliating the women, they had elected the first woman mayor in the country. 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."

ARGONIA 4/6/87

DORA SALTER, Argonia

Madam

You are hereby notified that at an election held in the city of Argonia on Monday April 4/87, for the purpose of electing city officers, you were duly elected to the office of Mayor of said city. You will take due notice thereof and govern yourself accordingly.

WM. H WATSON MAYOR

F.A. RUSE Clerk Pro. tem.

Five members of the town council were also elected. It was learned years later that three of them had been in the group of 20 pranksters. Nevertheless, the new mayor had no trouble with these men during her year in office. When she called the first council meeting to order, she said, "Gentlemen, what is your pleasure? You are the duly elected officials of this town, I am merely your presiding officer." This indicated to the surprised and skeptical councilmen that, contrary to predictions, they were not under "petticoat rule." She let the men take the lead in the council; the council and mayor worked harmoniously throughout the year. Actually the council did little. Two draymen were arrested for refusing to buy licenses, some boys were warned about throwing rocks at a vacant house, but otherwise the term was politically uneventful. No new ordinances were passed, although some of the ordinances which Mrs. Salter's husband had drawn up were tested for their effectiveness.

Notwithstanding this uneventful term of office, Mrs. Salter immediately became one of the most talked about and written about political figures in America. Newspapers sent correspondents to Argonia to visit her council meetings and to see how she conducted the town's business. Argonians were interviewed as to their reactions to a woman mayor. Newspapers debated over the advisability of other towns electing women mayors. Many objected to a possible "petticoat rule," while others took a "wait and see" attitude. Those who deferred judgment felt that if her term of office were a success women in politics might not be such a world-shaking change in American political life after all. Other newspapers made the mayor the object of many editorial jokes and sly remarks. [6]>

One of the first council meetings over which Mrs. Salter presided was attended by a correspondent of the New York Sun. She knew that her every act would be publicized over the nation. She was determined to handle the council meeting with a firm hand, showing the world that a woman could hold her own in the realm of politics. The correspondent was impressed. When he wrote his story, he described the mayor's dress and hat, and pointed out that she presided with great decorum. He noted that several times she checked discussion which she deemed irrelevant, showing that she was a good parliamentarian. The councilmen, though respectful, bore the air of protesting pupils of a not over-popular school mistress. No official action was taken on any subject at this particular meeting, though an order of business was carried out and several matters discussed.

official notice of Mrs. Salter's election, 1887

A photographic reproduction of the official notice of election
sent to Mrs. Lewis Allison Slater in April, 1887
.

photos of Susanna Madora Salter, age 27 and age 94

Mrs. Lewis Allison Salter, born Susanna Madora Kinsey, was elected mayor of Argonia on April 4, 1887. She was the first woman to be so honored in the United States. At left, Mrs. Salter in 1887, at the age of 27. At right, Mrs. Salter in 1954, on her 94th birthday. She now lives in Norman, Okla. Photos courtesy of Mrs. Salter and Mr. Billington.

A councilman thought the license on billiard tables should be reduced from $25 to $12.50 a year, since the existing license -- in his opinion -- was almost prohibitive. Mrs. Salter thought that the town did not need billiard parlors badly enough to offer any premiums and expressed this opinion. When one of the other councilmen agreed with her, the matter was dropped. When the councilmen were asked if they knew of any violations of ordinances which demanded attention, they did not respond. The mayor pointed out that she knew of two small boys who had been throwing stones at a vacant house, and she thought they should be arrested and punished. The reporter added, "This was about all the business transacted, and it is little else that the Council is ever asked to do."

The mayor was regarded as a curiosity by even the townspeople, always being pointed out to strangers visiting the town. The Sun reporter noted that "the mischievous small boys appear to regard her much as a New York gamin does a 'cop,' and 'There's the Mayor' is often the signal for a general scattering of urchins as she approaches." This Eastern observer concluded his column in this way:

I asked Mrs. Salter if her ambition to act as a female politician or leader in woman suffrage circles had been aroused by her election. She quickly replied, "No, indeed, I shall be very glad when my term of office expires, and shall be only too happy to thereafter devote myself entirely, as I always have done heretofore, to the care of my family." And in conversation with a number of business men in Argonia I found a very general disposition to rest on the laurels now won as the only American town which ever tried the experiment of a woman Mayor.

The Leavenworth Times, quoting the Sun article, pointed out that the correspondent expressed the opinion that she made "an intelligent, capable and conscientious officer, fully equal to all the requirements of her position." The Times went on to defend Mrs. Salter when it stated that "this evidence is corroborated by every individual who has had an opportunity to base his judgment on a personal observation of the conduct of her administration." The Rushville (Ind.) Republican, August 18, 1887, carried a brief article on Mrs. Salter stating that she "is said to discharge the duties of her office in the most acceptable manner." Another paper wrote that she "is having a very successful administration. When she was elected to her present office, her enemies predicted that she would make a failure of her effort to run the municipal affairs of Argonia. Up to the present time she has made no great blunders."

New England's reaction to the events in Kansas were expressed in a Massachusetts newspaper:

The Kansas women have done it. Susanna Madora Salter, mayor of Argonia, a little town of 500 inhabitants, is the first woman ever elected to that office. And she is not an "unsexed female" either, but the wife of a lawyer and the mother of four children. There is no more likelihood of her neglecting her babies -- she is only 27 and the children cannot be much beyond babyhood -- than her husband would neglect his practice if he had been elected to the same office. There is also a poetic fitness in Mrs. Salter's election. Her father was the first mayor of the town, and she can continue the work he began. [7]

The Manhattan Nationalist remarked that it was fortunate for those who favored woman suffrage to be first represented in official life by one like Mrs. Salter. "There are many others in Kansas just as capable as she, but as among men, there are some incapable. It cannot be said now that the very beginning [of women in office] was a failure," concluded the Nationalist.

Not all of the editorial comments were as favorable as the ones quoted above. One paper, when it heard that Mrs. Salter was not going to run for re-election, stated, "She is tired of the burdens of office. [She plans to] return to private life and leave the government of Argonia to the care of the sterner sex. Mayor Salter's experience proves that woman suffrage is its own cure." Another newspaper took issue with the statement that Mrs. Salter was tired of the responsibilities of office. One the contrary, it declared that she "finds . . . [official duties] less troublesome than household duties, which she also attends to and does not complain of either."

Laura M. Johns, president of the Kansas Equal Suffrage Association, capitalized on Mrs. Salter's election. For a Salina newspaper she wrote on April 28, 1887:

Argonia is a pretty little city . . . with a population of 500 . . . incorporated two years ago . . . It has attracted the attention of suffragists by electing, this spring, a lady to the mayoralty. This is the first time a woman has held that office in Kansas, and we are glad that the "innovation" is made in the person of one who will fill that office with credit to herself and sex, and satisfaction to her townspeople. [The mayor] . . . does not fear [her opposition] in the least, and is determined, by the help of God, so to conduct her office as to make it serve the best interests of the city. She is an officer in the Argonia W.C.T.U., much interested in the enforcement of the prohibitory law, and in the study of the best means of suppressing and eradicating the vices that beset our cities.

Newspapers pointed out that a short time after the election the billiard hall was closed and the sale of hard cider was stopped in Argonia. The morals of the little Quaker town became stricter than ever. Men thought that it was necessary to put on a clean shirt and to black their boots before they consulted the mayor about the enforcement of the hog law. This was gall and wormwood to their souls, so some of those who originated the scheme which backfired left town, if one newspaper report is to be trusted.

Argonia received additional publicity when newspapers discovered that the mayor had given birth to a child while holding office. [8] As one newspaper put it:

When Mayor Salter of Argonia had a baby, that village received such a boom and such gratuitous advertizing that all the other villages in the State almost went wild with envy. From an unknown country crossroads hamlet, Argonia has jumped into a prominence that is wonderful, and is today probably the best known, or at least the widest known town in the State.

Other Kansas towns elected woman officials the following year, much to the chagrin of many newspaper editors. Here are some headlines reflecting their attitudes: "Women as Mayors and City Councillors Not a Success in Kansas," "Pretty Campaigners -- Indulging in Kissing to Change the View of Stony-Hearted Partisans," "How Women Lose Self-Respect -- Argonia, Syracuse and Oskaloosa Under Female Government." An article under a Kansas City, Mo., dateline, and telegraphed to the New York Herald, may have been serious, but it probably was making fun of the towns under feminist rule:

There is reason to believe that billiards will soon become a lost art in all the smaller towns in Kansas, for the women have entered politics for the purposes of reforming the men, and it is a well-known fact that their principal objection to the modes of male recreation is to billiards. As the Mayor and Council of Oskaloosa all wear petticoats there will soon be such a revolution in that burg that the male sex will be compelled to go back to the days of their youth when they played "hookey" for devices to escape the lynx eyed rulers of the town. Quiet games of "draw" or "old sledge" will be played in the corners or behind the hedge fences, while such a pleasure as "sitting up with a sick friend" will become obsolete. [9]

Mrs. Salter's publicity was not confined to America. Many foreign papers carried notices, articles, and pictures about her. The official organ of the Grand Lodge of Western South Africa, Temperance News, carried an article about the mayor on June 16, 1888, and Idun, a women's magazine published in Stockholm, Sweden, carried her picture and an article about her on June 27, 1890. Other foreign newspapers and magazines carried similar stories.

The publicity which the American and foreign papers gave Mrs. Salter brought a deluge of mail to her office. One skeptical yet sympathetic preacher wrote:

STEAMBOAT ROCK
HARDIN CO. IOWA

Mrs. S.M. Salter

DEAR MADAM

Is it posible [sic] that you have been elected Mayor of Argonia or is it a newspaper falshood [sic]. I am glad if it is true But thought I would ask for information. I saw it in the State Register And would like to hear from you. While I remain

Yours fraternally

S.G.A. FIELDS
Pastor of M.E. Church

The opposite reaction was manifested by an anonymous person who set the following poem to Mrs. Salter with a pair of men's pants drawn on the card:

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.

Letters of congratulations -- some from nobility -- were sent from France, Italy, Germany, Austria, and other European countries. Most of the foreign letters were written in the native tongue of the writer and were untranslatable by any of the citizens of Argonia. The following letter with misspellings and a misconception is typical except that it was written in English:

Vienna, 27 July 87

My lady!

I thank an american friend your adress and he assure me that you are particularly amiable against strangers. Trusting of this, I pray you, to mark me a dealer, ingeneer or other person in your city or county, from which I could draw beautiful minerals for scientific purposes. Specially there cause before in Arizona [obviously the European is confusing Argonia with Arizona] excellent Mulfeurtes, Vanaduit, Desclorrit, Opals, ect. ect. ____. ___, ___

Thanking you before hand, I am allways to your disposition and remain as

Your obedient servant

JULIUS BOHM

Feminists and leaders of the women's rights movement from all over the world wrote letters of congratulations and encouragement to the new mayor. An enthusiastic admirer sent this effusion:

FULTON OSWEGO CO. NY OCTOBER 25TH, 1887

MRS. SUSANNA MADORA SALTER, Argonia, Kansa,

Dear Madam, I write you this letter to you feeling interested in the equality of man and woman, and as your state Kansas, stands first to open the double door for a higher civilization to the whole world.

The dreams of my childhood have bloomed, and ripened, into a rich fruitage, in the person of Mrs. Salter. Allow me to congratulate you; as I feel proud of My Sister Woman in her manifest ability as Mayor of Argonia.

Most Respectfully,

MRS. MARY C. KNIGHT

A Lecturer on popular science>

Perhaps the most famous person writing a letter to the new mayor was Frances E. Willard, the vigorous advocate of woman's rights and outstanding national leader of the W.C.T.U. The following letter Mrs. Salter cherishes as one of her prized possessions:

EVANSTON, ILL. Aug. 18, 1887

HON. MRS. S. SALTER,

Mayor of Argonia Kansas,

Dear Friend,

I am sending you some of our documents and publications and I wish you would write me (on your official heading) a note that I can read to audiences, showing the good of woman's ballot as a temperance weapon and the advantage of women in office.

With best wishes for the "Best Mayor," I am

Yours sincerely,

FRANCES E. WILLARD

Mrs. Salter, of course, had no money allotted to her for official stationery. In fact, her salary for the year was only one dollar. She spent many times her salary in just answering part of her "fan mail" while she was in office.

Equal suffrage was no small or inconsequential movement, but one in which its advocates worked militantly and tirelessly. Except for financial limits, their enthusiasm knew no bounds. The following letter from the president of the Kansas Equal Suffrage Association shows the enthusiasm of the suffrage movement in America at the time Mrs. Salter was elected mayor:

SALINA KAN. 7/23 1887

DEAR MRS. SALTER

. . . How big is Argonia? If I were to bring speakers there, do you think collections could be taken sufficient to pay expenses? I would like to see an Equal Suffrage organization in Argonia. We are going to work for an amendment to our State Constitution, and we must be organized. To raise money to pay the expenses of organizing where the suffragists are not strong enough to do it all, we are taking part in the Boston Bazaar and it is suggested that you send as many of your Photos as you can afford to that Bazaar. We think they will sell readily and net us quite a handsome little sum. And if your lady photographer is a good suffragist (and I hope she is) she ought to "go halvers" with you, as the boys say, and that would be yours and hers -- -a joint contribution. What do you think .? Why, my dear, you don't know what a prominent figure you are in history, and I just hope you are getting along as well as you can wish to.

I am coming down there to speak as soon as I can arrange my awful load of other business . . .

Yours very cordially

LAURA M JOHNS

In the fall of 1887 Mrs. Johns invited Mrs. Salter to speak at the Kansas Women's Equal Suffrage Association's convention to be held at Newton. Appearing on the platform with the mayor were Susan B. Anthony, Rachael Foster Avery, the Rev. Anna Shaw, and Henry Blackwell, husband of Lucy Stone. [10] When Mrs. Salter was introduced to Susan B. Anthony before the program began, Miss Anthony -- instead of shaking the mayor's hand -- slapped her on the shoulder and exclaimed, "Why, you look just like any other woman, don't you?" [11]

The newspapers made much of the fact that Mrs. Salter was only 27 years old when she was elected mayor. The Salem (Mass.) Register pointed out that she was only five feet, three inches tall, and that she never had domestic help until her election. The Western newspapers paid little attention to her domestic help problem. They noted that she was a strong woman, even though weighing only 128 pounds. One paper wrote, "She is a frontiersman's wife, possessed of brawn and sinew, rather than pleasing plumpness of form. She talks in an easy, confident style, in fairly good English, in which the Western mixture of tenses becomes prominent. She is always properly dignified, and in all the experience of Argonia has never been known to crack a joke in the Council chamber."

As has already been pointed out, Mrs. Salter did not choose to run for re-election. One year of political life was all that she desired.

The Salters continued to live in Argonia until the Cherokee strip was opened in present Oklahoma in 1893. In that year Salter filed on a claim one mile south of Alva, Okla., and soon he moved his family to the new territory. Ten years later he sold his farm and moved to Augusta, where he practice law and established a newspaper, The Headlight, which he edited and published with the assistance of his older sons. A few years later many Augustans moved to the new townsite of Carmen. The Salters were part of this movement, with The Headlight and the law office also being moved. After her husband's death on August 2, 1916, Mrs. Salter moved her family to Norman, Okla., in order that her younger children might attend the state university there. She has been living in Norman ever since.

On November 10, 1933, Mrs. Slater was honored by the citizens of Argonia. In her presence and with a great deal of ceremony, a bronze plaque mounted on a stone base was unveiled on the public square. The plaque was donated by the Woman's Kansas Day Club and its unveiling and presentation was the culmination of a project conceived by the president of the club, Stella B. Haines of Augusta. The words on the plaque read:

In Honor
Of
MRS. SUSANNA MADORA SALTER,
First Woman Mayor in the
United States

She Served as Mayor of Argonia, Kansas,
1887.

Born March 2, 1860

Marker Placed by
Woman's Kansas Day Club,
1933.

At the age of 94, Mrs. Salter still [October, 1954] takes an active interest in political and religious affairs. Since turning 90 this unusual woman has vowed that she will walk a mile every birthday for the remainder of her life. She prides herself on her independence, living in an apartment where she keeps house and cooks meals for herself. Unaccompanied, she makes regular trips to Oklahoma City and occasional ones to Wichita and Chicago. Although she is forced to wear a hearing aid, she is still keenly alert to her surroundings and her guests.

Notes

MONROE BILLINGTON, a native of Oklahoma, is a graduate assistant at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, where he is writing his doctor's dissertation in history. His wife is a granddaughter of Susanna Madora Salter.

1. The author has spent several hours with Mrs. Salter gathering information for this article. He has had free access to her newspaper clippings, letters, and mementos. From these interviews and papers, the political life of this interesting person has been reconstructed.
2. Mrs. Salter entered college as a sophomore because she had taken several high school subjects which in those days could be counted as college credits. After taking an examination on these subjects, she was permitted to skip the freshman year.
3. Alfred H. Mitchell, "America's First Woman Mayor," The Ohio State Archaelogical and Historical Quarterly, Columbus, v. 53 (January-March, 1944), pp. 52-54.
4. Alva (Okla.) Review Courier, January 4, 1944.
5. Wellington Daily News, November 9, 1933.
6. From unidentified newspaper clippings. Many of Mrs. Salter's newspaper clippings are impossible to identify or to date since often only the brief articles have been clipped. When the dates and names of the newspapers are known, they are included.
7. Springfield (Mass.) Republican, May 1, 1887.
8. Edward Easter, who died 11 days after birth. Mrs. Salter was the mother of four children at the time of her election. Two more, in addition to this one who died in infancy, were born in Argonia, and two more were born after the family moved to Oklahoma. The Salter children in order of their births are: Clarence, Francis Argonia, Winfred, Melva, Edward, Bertha, Lewis, Leslie, and William.
9. New York Herald, April 18, 1888.
10. Lewis S. Salter, "Susanna Madora Salter," Kansas Library Bulletin, Topeka, v. 4 (June, 1935), pp. 13, 14.
11. Mrs. Salter was also acquainted with Carry Nation. She tells the story of Mrs. Nation reprimanding her one time for attending a football game. Mrs. Salter was not one to yield to such a reprimand. She replied, "Not go to the game? Why, I have a son on the team!"