In April, 1887, Susanna Salter, 27, called to order the newly elected, all-male city council of Argonia, Kansas. “Gentlemen,” she said, “the eyes of Kansas and the United States are watching and waiting to see how I’ll run things. I want you to know it’s your responsibility, not mine, but I’ll help you to the best of my ability. Now, what’s your pleasure?”
With that, this pert, no-nonsense housewife and mother of four, married to a lawyer, began service as the first woman in the United States to be elected mayor of a city. Temperance would be as much her guide to political order as it had been the cause of disruption that swept her into office.
Mrs. Salter’s historic election exposed something awry in the American way: Women could win public office in Kansas, but they couldn’t vote for president.
In 1883, Mrs. Salter had been elected secretary of the community Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which took an active interest in politics, and this “petticoat vote” threatened male pride. To parry this, Susanna Salter’s name four years later was placed on the April 4 mayoral ballot as a way to humiliate her.
On hearing of it, Mrs. Salter’s father, Oliver Kinsey, who had been Argonia’s first mayor two years earlier and her husband, Lewis, spread word of the scheme to embarrass Susanna. By day’s end, she had been elected with two-thirds of the 700 votes cast.
The eyes of the nation and Europe were on little Argonia. Newspapers from Germany, Sweden and England and reporters from Boston, New York and Washington published running accounts of Susanna Salter’s term. So far as they knew, Mrs. Salter was the first woman elected mayor of any town in the world.
Six months later, Mayor Salter was invited to the fall convention of the Kansas Women’s Suffrage Association at Newton. She appeared on the same program with the national leader of the women’s movement, Susan B. Anthony.
Susanna Salter was mayor of Argonia for a year. It was her only venture into public politics in the 101 years that she lived. She managed a strong rule based on her knowledge of local ordinances and rules of order at town meetings.
In the early 20th century, Kansas was a national leader in a long list of causes and reforms, including public health and child labor laws, transportation, utilities regulation and government finance, among others. It was especially the case with women’s rights.
Kansas became the first state to grant homestead rights to women through the Wyandotte constitutional convention (1859) and was one of the first states to grant women equal voting rights in school elections. In 1887, the year of Susanna’s mayoral election, women were granted full rights to vote and hold city office. Full suffrage for women was granted by the state Constitution in 1912, eight years before Congress ratified the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving women citizens everywhere the right to vote. (In 1972, Kansas became the sixth state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.)
Kansas was often far ahead of the times, and sometimes the law. Anna Junken, from 1884 to 1888 the Dickinson County Register of Deeds – a powerful office at the time – was one of the earliest women to hold county office in Kansas.
The year of Susanna’s election, voters in Syracuse elected women to all five seats of the city council, but a man was mayor. Baldwin had an all-women city government two years later, in 1889; Lucy Sullivan was elected mayor and a full slate of women were reelected to the council.
Oskaloosa likely holds the record for women first in government. In 1888 Mary Lowman was elected mayor and five women were elected to the city council; a year later, Mrs. Lowman and three council members were reelected. The two women who did not run for reelection were replaced by women.
In 1889, the entire city administration of Rossville, 18 miles west of Topeka, was composed of women from the mayor, Mrs. H. H. Miller, through the complete roll of city officials including the police judge and city treasurer.
In 1911, when the Legislature submitted the suffrage amendment for public vote in 1912, almost half the county school superintendents in Kansas were women.
Susanna Salter had brought women into local government, and into worldwide notice.
Kansas has continued to elect women to local office, and the state legislature. They have been elected governor and to the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate; Kansas women have earned prominent and significant appointments, including to the federal courts and the president’s cabinet. They have served nobly and well, adding to a state’s significant history.
And it all began in a little town. Susan B. Anthony may have carried the torch, but Susanna Salter carried the election that started it all.