In 1887, Kansas granted women living in first, second and third-class cities the right to vote in municipal elections. One of these third-class cities was Argonia, Kansas. A group of men in Argonia did not want women or the temperance movement involved in any aspect of politics. So they made a joke nomination to humiliate the women in their town. They put a woman’s name on the ballot. They figured her overwhelming loss would show that women should stay out of politics. The woman they put on the ballot was an officer of the local Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Things didn’t work out the way they expected. Susanna Madora Salter became the first woman elected Mayor in Kansas and in the entire United States.
Early Life, Education & Marriage
On March 2, 1860, descendants of Quaker colonists from England, Oliver Kinsey and Teresa Ann White Kinsey, had a daughter. They named her Susanna Madora “Dora” Kinsey. They lived near Lamira in Belmont county, Ohio.
The family moved to an 80-acre Kansas farm in the Kaw valley near Silver Lake in 1872. Dora attended district schools there. In 1878, she entered Kansas State Agricultural College (present-day Kansas State University) in Manhattan. The college allowed her to skip her freshman year, as she had met her requirements in high school.
It was at the College she met a law student, Lewis Allison Salter. Salter was the son of former Kansas Lt. Gov. Melville J. Salter. He graduated in 1879.
In 1880, Dora’s health broke down due to overwork and forced her to leave college six weeks before graduation.
She married Lewis Salter on September 1, 1880, at Silver Lake.
They moved to Argonia in 1882. The little Quaker village had a population of less than five hundred people.
Salter ran a hardware store there. In 1883, Dora had her second child, Francis Argonia Salter. Francis was the first baby born in the village.
Dora took care of their children and became an officer in the local Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).
A year later, her parents moved to Argonia and bought the store, which operated under the firm name of Kinsey & Salter. Lewis Salter read law with a local attorney and prepared for the bar.
Their little town of Argonia was incorporated in 1885.
Introduction to Politics
Following Argonia’s incorporation, her father became the first mayor of the town and her husband, the city clerk. As city clerk, her husband wrote the city ordinances.
When the state granted women the right to vote in 1887, the Argonia WCTU called a caucus. Their president was absent, so Dora presided at the caucus.
A group of men in Argonia didn’t want women to vote, especially women who campaigned for the prohibition of alcohol. Two of those men attended the WCTU caucus. They heckled and tried to nominate men who also opposed the WCTU. The rest of the WCTU voted them down..
The WCTU selected a ticket of men whom they considered worthy of the town’s offices, regardless of political labels.
The group of opposing men held a secret caucus. They would teach the women to stay out of politics. The day before the election, they placed the name Susanna Madora Salter on the ballet without her knowledge. (Candidates did not have to be made public before election day back then.)
They were certain only the members of WCTU would vote for her and women would see her embarrassment and stay out of politics.
Dora learned of her nomination after the Polls opened on Election Day, April 4, 1887. The local Republican Party chairman saw her name on the Prohibition Party ticket and sent a delegation to her home. They found her doing the family laundry.
They explained the trick and asked if she would serve if elected. When she agreed, the Republicans admitted they wanted to teach the tricksters a thing or two. They would not only vote for her, but campaign all day to see she got elected. The WCTU abandoned their ticket of men and also voted for her.
Her husband, an early voter, came home angry at the trick played on his wife. Imagine his surprise when he learned she’d agreed to serve as mayor if elected.
That afternoon, she went to the polls with her parents. It wasn’t proper to vote for oneself, so she left the box for Mayor unmarked.
Two days later, she received the official notification.
The twenty-seven-year-old mother of four, Dora Salter, won the election by a two-thirds majority.
News Traveled Fast
News reporters descended on the little town to observe her during council meetings and to interview anyone they could.
Debates raged in newspapers across the country. Some people objected to “petticoat rule.” Others took a “wait and see” attitude. Many cheered her on. A few made fun of her.
The newspapers mentioned she was only five feet, three inches tall and weighed only 128 pounds. One paper called her a “frontiersman’s wife, possessed of brawn and sinew, rather than pleasing plumpness.” An article with a Kansas City dateline said, “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.”
Even foreign newspapers from as far away as Sweden and South Africa discussed the pros and cons of a female mayor.
At her first council meeting, Dora told the council members they were the elected officials, and she was merely their presiding officer. From most accounts, she presided over the meetings and the town with decorum, and respect, and attention to the letter and the spirit of the law.
Years later, she learned that three members of the town council, also elected when she was, had been in the group of tricksters.
Laura M. Johns, president of the Kansas Equal Suffrage Association, took advantage of Dora’s election. She invited Dora to speak at the Kansas Women’s Equal Suffrage Association’s convention held at Newton. Appearing on the platform with Dora were Susan B. Anthony, Rachael Foster Avery, the Rev. Anna Shaw, and Henry Blackwell, husband of Lucy Stone.
The Mayor had a Baby
Dora had a son, Edward Argonia Salter, in 1887. Unfortunately, the baby died a few weeks later.
When newspapers learned the mayor had given birth while in office, Argonia received additional publicity. Newspapers articles voiced multiple opinions once again. Some saw this as a sign that women could handle public office as well as men. Others disagreed.
Summing Up Her Term
According to most newspaper accounts, Dora fulfilled her obligations as mayor. Some were complimentary. Others said she was “adequate.” She finished her term and did not seek re-election. She preferred to stay home and take care of her family.
Dora received a deluge of mail during her time in office. Answering the mail cost far more than her year’s salary of one dollar.
Life After Office
Dora and her family continued to live in Argonia until 1893. She and Lewis had nine children, eight of whom survived.
When the Cherokee strip was opened, her husband went to what is now Oklahoma. He filed a claim one mile south of Alva, Oklahoma. Soon after, they moved the family there.
They sold that farm in 1903 and moved to Augusta, where Lewis practiced law and established a newspaper, The Headlight. He edited and published the paper with the help of his oldest sons.
Later, Lewis moved the law office, the newspaper, and the family to the town of Carmen. He died on August 2, 1916.
Dora moved her family to Norman, Oklahoma, where her younger children attended the state university.She lived there for the rest of her life.
Susanna Madora Slater died two weeks after her birthday in 1961, at 101. She was buried in Argonia, alongside her husband.
Argonia remains a small town of less than 500 residents and is about 50 miles southwest of Wichita.
The citizens of Argonia honored Dora Slater on November 10, 1933. With her present, they unveiled a bronze plaque mounted on a stone base in the town square. Donated by the Woman’s Kansas Day Club, it read:
MRS. SUSANNA MADORA SALTER,
First Woman Mayor in the
She Served as Mayor of Argonia, Kansas,1887.
Born March 2, 1860
Marker Placed by
Woman’s Kansas Day Club,
After her election, more and more women across the country sought election and served in public offices. Though she never asked for it, Susanna Madora Slater blazed a trail for women in the United States.
What if this happened to you?
Would you serve if elected?
If you like this post, you might like to read about another woman in history.
Top image by Unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Second image, photo of the Salter home in Argonia, by Art Davis, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Fascinating. It’s amazing to me that I’ve lived in Missouri and worked in Kansas for so many years. AND that I never heard her mentioned in Quaker meeting. An interesting story of someone who takes responsibility no matter how it comes.
I was surprised I hadn’t heard of her either. She definitely rose to the occasion. I hope I’d do the same.