Susanna Salter never really ran a campaign for office.
She didn’t even put her name on the ballot during the 1887 mayoral election in Argonia, Kansas. A group of men who wanted to humiliate both her and the causes she allied herself with did it for her.
At issue were two new things that happened in the Quaker town, writes Gil Troy for The Daily Beast: women’s suffrage and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Women had been granted the right to vote in local elections in Kansas four years earlier, he writes. Then in early 1887, they formed a local chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Among its other goals, the group campaigned for the prohibition of alcohol (hence the “temperance” part of its name.) That campaigning, though, began to reach farther and farther into the sphere of municipal governance beginning in the 1870s, Troy writes. Women went from just protesting outside saloons to actually trying to police society on moral grounds, claiming that WCTU members’ status as wives and mothers made them eligible to be mothers for the whole society.
These stances didn’t really endear them to local drinkers and often men in general, who didn’t see why they should share public authority with women at all. So when the WCTU members of Argonia nominated a slate of men who agreed with their prohibitionist views to run for mayor and city council, twenty “wets” interfered.
“They reasoned that the notion of Susanna Madora Salter, a 27-year-old wife and mother, becoming mayor was so absurd that only the WCTU extremists would vote for her, exposing their movement as marginal and idiotic,” Troy writes.
So on election day, which was when most candidates registered for office, they put her name down on the same slate that was endorsed by the WCTU, replacing the man who they nominated as mayor.
Voters were shocked to see her name at the top of the ballot, Troy writes—including Salter’s husband Lewis Allison Salter. Pro-temperance voters rushed to the Salter home, "interrupting Susanna Salter hanging the wash,” he writes. They proposed turning the prank on itself, and with the help of WCTU members, she was elected with a two-thirds majority. That made her the first female mayor of a U.S. city. Lewis Salter began describing himself as the “husband of the mayor.”
After winning the election, Salter banned hard cider from the town and served her one-year term (despite mail from across the country either decrying her election or celebrating it). When she stepped down after her term, more mail accused her of giving up—even though she never intended to be mayor in the first place.
Being the daughter of the town’s first-ever mayor, Oliver Kinsey, probably helped Salter weather political office, writes the Kansas Historical Society. And her father-in-law, Melville J. Salter, had been the lieutenant governor of Kansas.
A few years later, the Salter family moved to Oklahoma. America’s first woman mayor lived to see a lot more change: she died in 1961 at the age of 101.