When Susana Salter’s name appeared on the ballot on April 4, 1887, it was all supposed to be a late April Fools Day gag. As it turned out, the joke was on those who pulled the prank when she won the election and became the first woman elected as mayor in the United States.
The mayoral election in Argonia, Kansas would have been uneventful, if it had not been for the addition of Susana’s name to the ballot. At a time when the suffrage movement was beginning to gain traction, a group of men opposed to women’s enfranchisement thought they could gain support for their cause. To drive home the utter preposterousness of women having the vote, these men decided to put Susana Salter’s name on the ballot as a candidate for mayor. Surely, this would make a vivid point about the dangers of women voting and how it could ultimately lead to women running for office.
The likelihood of Susana winning the election scarcely deserves discussing. The Constitutional amendment that gave women the vote was still decades into the future, so she wouldn’t even be able to vote for herself.
Susana had enough going on in her life without becoming the center of this practical joke. She had been a student at Kansas State Agricultural College (present-day Kansas State University) in Manhattan. Because of the college-level courses she took in high school, she skipped her freshman year and started off as a sophomore. Despite this promising start, she was forced to drop out after six weeks because of illness.
Her time in college was not a complete waste of time. While there, she met Lewis Allison Salter, an aspiring attorney and the son of former Kansas Lieutenant Governor Melville J. Salter. They fell in love, got married, and made their home in Argonia. Susana devoted herself to the local Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and Prohibition Party organizations and became acquainted with nationally known temperance activist Carrie Nation.
She thought she had secured her place in history in 1883 by giving birth to the first baby born in Argonia. Eight more children followed. When the city was incorporated in 1885, her father was elected as the city’s first mayor, and her husband became the first city clerk.
Two years later, her peaceful and fulfilling life was upended by the prank that would secure her place in history. The men who put her name on the ballot hoped that her inevitable crushing defeat would be so humiliating that no woman would dare get involved in politics again. Susana was unaware of the big joke until the day of the election. The law at that time did not require advance publication of candidates. It was only when the polls opened that word got back to her that she was running to hold the highest office in Argonia.
After a hasty consultation with city leaders, Susana confirmed that she would, indeed, serve if she won the election. As a result, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union abandoned its own preferred candidate and urged its membership and everyone else to vote for Susana. The local Republican Party additionally endorsed her candidacy. At the end of the day, when the votes were counted, Susana Salter had been elected by a two-thirds majority.
Her term as mayor was relatively uneventful, although she continued to generate publicity that reached around the world. Reporters breathlessly wrote accounts of her administration, remarking on how competently she conducted herself and the affairs of the municipality. She served out her one-year term of office and declined subsequent opportunities for elected office. Her compensation for that one-year term as mayor was $1.
After leaving office, she tried her best to live a quiet life. For the most part, she succeeded, but she had a long time to practice. After leaving office in 1888, she lived another 73 years and died in 1961 at the age of 101 years. We can’t help but wonder how many times she laughed at the joke that was supposed to be at her expense.
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