Susanna Salter – Breaking the Glass Ceiling for Women Politicians
As part of Women’s History Month, we are celebrating notable women past and present whose contributions to our nation have been overlooked.
During the years following the Civil War, women across America began escalating their demands for greater political rights. But it wasn’t until 1887 when Argonia, Kansas, then a small town of 500 inhabitants, elected Susanna Salter that America had its first female mayor.
Just 27-years old at the time, Mrs. Salter’s election began as a cruel joke by a small group of townsmen, who placed her name on a slate of candidates in the hope of humiliating women and discouraging them from running. It’s worth noting that it was only earlier that same year that the Kansas legislature enacted a law giving women in first-, second-, and third-class cities the right to vote. And with their new found freedom, it was Salter and the women of Argonia who would get the last laugh.
Because candidates did not have to be made public before election day, Salter herself did not know she was on the ballot before the polls opened. When, on Election Day itself, she agreed to accept office if elected, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (with which Salter was affiliated and aligned in prohibiting the use of alcohol), abandoned its own preferred candidate and voted for Salter en masse.
Given that her father was the first mayor of Argonia and her father-in law a former Lieutenant Governor of Kansas, it seems entirely fitting that Salter would help break the glass ceiling for female politicians in America.
While on the whole her term of office was uneventful, Salter’s election generated national interest from the press, sparking a debate regarding the feasibility of other towns following Argonia’s lead. Newspapers sent correspondents to Argonia to visit town council meetings to see how she conducted the town’s business. Aware that her every act would be publicized across the nation, Salter was determined to handle the proceedings with a firm hand to prove that a woman could hold her own in the realm of politics, and acted accordingly, impressing correspondents and townspeople alike. Many foreign papers carried notices, articles, and pictures about her as well.
In the fall of 1887 Salter was invited to speak at the Kansas Women’s Equal Suffrage Association’s convention, appearing on the platform with Susan B. Anthony. When the two were introduced before the program began, Anthony slapped Salter on the shoulder and exclaimed, “Why, you look just like any other woman, don’t you?”
The following year, several more Kansas towns elected women officials, much to the chagrin of many newspaper editors. But after only a year in office, Salter declined to seek reelection.
Thereafter, Salter and her husband lived out the majority of their lives in Oklahoma. She continued to take an active interest in political and religious affairs well into her 90s before her death in 1961 at the age of 101.