In 1872, when she was 12, her family moved to an 80-acre farm near Silver Lake in northeastern Kansas, where Salter attended public schools. Then, in 1880, she entered the Kansas State Agricultural College as a sophomore, being able to skip her freshman year because of college-level courses she took while in high school. She was forced to drop out of college just six weeks prior to graduate because of an illness.
While at college she met – and married – Lewis Allison Salter, the son of a former Kansas Lt. Governor, Melville J. Salter. Lewis graduated from college in 1879, and the couple were married on September 1, 1880. Two years later, after the birth of the first of their nine children, the Salter’s moved to Argonia, where Lewis would manage a hardware store. Argonia is in southern Kansas, and would be a city where Susanna would be involved in making history.
The first child born in Argonia was the Salter’s’ second child, Francis Argonia Salter, who was born in the spring of 1883. In 1884, Mrs. Salter’s parents moved to Argonia, where they bought the store in a partnership with Lewis so that Lewis could study the law with a local attorney and prepare for the bar exam.
In 1885 the town of Argonia was incorporated, and again history was made. Susanna’s father became the first mayor, and her husband, Lewis, became the city clerk. As city clerk, Lewis was responsible for writing the ordinances of the newly incorporated town.
In 1885 a bill was introduced in the Kansas state legislature to grant women the right of voting in municipal elections. Two years later the Kansas legislature passed the legislation, and governor John A. Martin signed it into law on February 15, 1887.
In Argonia, Susanna had become an active member and officer in the local W.C.T.U. (Women’s Christian Temperance Union), which had been organized in Argonia in 1883. With the passage of legislation allowing women the right to vote in Kansas municipalities, the Argonia chapter of the W.C.T.U. decided to make the enforcement of a state prohibition of liquor law a priority in the city election, which was to be held in 1887. Due to the absence of their president, Susanna presided at a meeting which selected a ticket of men whom the W.C.T.U. considered eligible for the city’s political offices – and who supported the W.C.T.U. agenda.
Some of the ‘wets’ in town – those men who opposed the ideas of the W.C.T.U. and favored the open sale of alcohol – held a secret meeting that developed a plan of Machiavellian proportions designed to defeat the W.C.T.U. and lessen the influence of that organization.
They decided to draw up a list of candidates identical with that of the W.C.T.U. – only with Susanna Salter’s name in the mayoral slot. Their thought was that the men in the community would not vote for a woman – nor would many of the W.C.T.U. members. In the end, the W.C.T.U. would, so the plan proposed, be politically embarrassed and would lose some of its influence as a political organization. Susanna Slater’s name was chosen because she was the only W.C.T.U. officer living within the city limits, and therefore eligible to run for mayor.
The election laws at the time did not require advance notice of candidacy, so the plotters ran off their copies of the ballot just before the April 4th election. Because of this, neither Susanna nor her family knew that she was on the ballot.
Surprise and shock greeted the early voters on election day when they saw a woman’s name as candidate for mayor. Word soon spread, and the chairman of the Republican Party in Argonia quickly determined what had been done and organized a delegation to visit Susanna. They found her in her yard, hanging up the laundry. They explained what had happened, asking her if she would accept the post if she won. She agreed.
The delegation spent the day explaining the situation to voters, and worked in the city to get out the vote. Lewis Salter – who was one of the early voters – was reported perturbed when he discovered that his wife was on the ballot, and more so when he returned home and found out that she had consented to be the mayor if she won the election. He eventually consoled himself with the event, even calling himself “the husband of the Mayor”.
Accompanied by her parents, Susanna went to the polls around 4 PM. As was customary for the day, she did not vote for herself – leaving the position of mayor on the ballot unmarked.
Showing that the ‘best laid plans’ can go astray, Susanna Salter was elected mayor of Argonia – and the first woman mayor in the United States. The official notice of the election stated:
ARGONIA 4/6/87There were also five members of the town council elected – three of whom had been in on the plot to embarrass the women of the W.C.T.U.. Reportedly the new mayor had no trouble with the council during her yearlong term. She stated at the first meeting:
DORA SALTER, Argonia
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.
“Gentlemen, what is your pleasure? You are the duly elected officials of this town, I am merely your presiding officer."The council and the mayor got along during their yearlong term. No new ordinances were passed – though it was a time of continued adjustment and application of the city ordinances that were created a mere two years earlier. One sad note during the term of Susanna: one of her children was born during her term as mayor, and died in infancy.
There was quite a bit of press coverage of the election of a woman mayor – both national and foreign newspapers came to the small Kansas town, interviewed the people, attended council meetings – each reflecting the view of their editors as to whether a woman mayor was a good or a bad thing. One item of continued interest was that Susanna was only 27 years old when elected to office. Another was that the position paid one dollar annually.
When asked about her future ambitions in politics by one of the eastern newspapers, Susanna 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."Susanna did not run for office again after her year in office expired. She and her family would leave Argonia when the Cherokee Strip was oned in 1893 where Lewis filed a claim on land near Alva, Oklahoma. In 1903 he sold the farm and moved to Augusta where he practiced law and established a newspaper.
Lewis died in 1916, and Susanna moved her family to Norman, Oklahoma, so her youngest child could attend the state university there. She would pass away at the age of 101 on March 17, 1961, and is buried in Argonia, Kansas.
A political ploy had backfired, electing the first woman mayor in the United States. She accepted the job she had not applied for, and made history.
Kansas Historical Quarterly
Kansas State Historical Society
KTWU interview transcript
Portrait of Suzanna Salter, age 27: Kansas Historical Society
Portrait of Suzanna and her husband: Kansas Historical Society
Map of Sumner County, 1887: David Rumsey Collection
Salter home in Argonia: Salter House Museum
Letter notifying Suzanna of her election as mayor: Kansas Memory