America’s first female mayor came from a tiny town in Kansas. And she got the job by accident
Kansas was years ahead of most of the country in granting women full suffrage. A prank by a few men backfired when Susanna Madora Salter was elected mayor of Argonia, Kansas, in 1887.
These days, it’s common to see women on the ballot for school boards, city council and mayoral races in Kansas. The state’s top official, Gov. Laura Kelly, is in the middle of her second term. But women running for office — heck, even women voting — is only a little more than 100 years old in most of the country.
Except in Kansas.
There, women were allowed to vote in school board elections in 1861. By 1887, women could vote in Kansas in a municipal election.
And by 1912, women had full suffrage — a full eight years before the passage of the 19th Amendment.
“Kansas was ahead of most other states but it took a long time to get to the ultimate goal. Kansans, some Kansans, were struggling for a better place from the beginning,” says historian Virgil Dean, retired editor of Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains.
Dean traces suffrage efforts back to 1859, when there was an unsuccessful move to grant women and African Americans full suffrage at the Wyandotte constitutional convention.
Not only was Kansas ahead of the curve in terms of granting the right to vote, it also beat the rest of the country to elect a woman to office.
That honor falls to Susanna Madora Salter of Argonia, Kansas, who, on April 4, 1887, became the first woman ever elected mayor in America.
Argonia sits along U.S. 160 in Sumner County, about 20 miles north of the Oklahoma line. Salter presided over about 400 folks — still about the same population that Argonia has today.
Salter was born in Ohio, met her husband at the Kansas State Agriculture College (now Kansas State University) and was active in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
“She was a well-educated person,” says Dean. “She had a background in activism and no doubt saw this as a way to strike a blow for women’s rights.”
That Salter was even on the ballot was a twist of irony. Her name was placed in nomination as a joke by a few male members of the Prohibition Party, hoping they would embarrass the 27-year-old and the W.C.T.U. with less than two dozen votes.
The joke was on them — Salter won the election with two-thirds of the vote.
Salter served one year in office and was paid $1, according to the National Women’s History museum. She never sought another elected office, and died in Oklahoma in 1961 at age 101.
Though she only served a short time, Salter’s election in a municipal race may have paved the way for women to win larger offices in Kansas.
Kansas took another three decades after Salter to elect its first woman statewide: Elizabeth Wooster, who in 1918 won the office of superintendent of public instruction (a position that no longer exists).
Wooster didn’t exactly open the door to other women though — and in fact, she was noticeably tough on women in education.
In 1922, she tried to fire several teachers in Cimarron after they’d been seen at a dance. That hardline stance cost her a third term.
Today, the average state legislature in the U.S. has about 33% women members, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. The Kansas Legislature in 2023 is about 30% female.
This story originated in a 2017 episode of the history podcast Archiver, produced and hosted by KCUR’s Sam Zeff.