Susanna Madora Salter, or Dora as friends called her, didn’t choose to enter the race for mayor of Argonia, Kansas, in 1887. She didn’t even know she was running. Her name was added to the ballot by a group of men as a joke to mock the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), a group Susanna was active in. The men chose her because she was the only one who qualified, as the other women lived outside city limits.
Susanna was doing housework when the head of the Republican party in her town stopped by to confirm whether or not she was running for office. That’s how she found out her name was on the ballot.
“Yes,” she said when he asked if she’d like to stay in the race.
And with that, the twenty-seven-year-old mother of four confirmed her candidacy for mayor. Once she confirmed, the head of the Republican party said, “All right, we will elect you and just show those fellows who framed up this deal a thing or two.”
The deal, or plan hatched by these men, came in response to Kansas giving women in most state districts the right to vote in local elections. The men were bitter about women’s involvement in politics, and they feared the group for making enforcing the prohibition law, which was a ban on alcohol sales, an important issue of the city election. So they nominated Dora for mayor with complete certainty that she would lose, hoping her loss would embarrass the WCTU and slow down the group’s momentum.
But Dora understood politics. Her father served as city mayor only a few years prior. Her husband was the current city clerk, and as his wife, she wrote the city ordinances.
Dora won the election with two-thirds of the votes, becoming the first female mayor in the U.S.
In her first meeting as mayor, she faced a number of the men who tried to humiliate her. She looked at them along with all the other city council members and, without bitterness or anger, made her first statement, “Gentlemen, what is your pleasure? You are the duly elected officials of this town, I am merely your presiding officer.”
“Nominated as a joke, Susanna Salter becomes the first female mayor in the U.S.” sources: “Susanna Madora Salter First Woman Mayor.” Kansas Historical Society. / Portrait of Susanna Salter taken in 1887, Kansas Historical Society – Wikimedia Commons.