Susanna Madora "Dora" Salter -- the World's First Female Mayor


Today we continue our celebration of Women's History Month with a look at the world's first female mayor or mayoress. Her name is Susanna Madora Salter. Her name was put on the ballot by some men trying to shut down the women's suffrage movement, but it backfired. Come learn about this amazing woman!

Susanna Madora Salter in 1887
Source: Unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

On March 2, 1860, Susanna Madora Kinsey was born near Lamira, Ohio to Oliver and Terrisa Anne White Kinsey.  They were both Quakers. Both of their ancestors had come from England with William Penn. The Kinsey family had moved from Pennsylvania to Ohio and then to Kansas near Silver Lake. Susanna went by Dora often. She attended district schools until 1878. In 1878 she entered Kansas State Agricultural College as a sophomore in Manhattan, Kansas. It was there that she met Lewis Allison Salter who graduated from the college in 1879. He was the son of former Kansas Lieutenant Governor Melville J. Salter. Dora did not graduate. She became ill six weeks prior to graduating and left the college. In 1880 Dora and Lewis got married at Silver Lake. 
The Salter Home in Argonia, Kansas NOTE: It is now a museum!
Source: Art davis, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1882 Dora and Lewis moved to Argonia, Kansas. Lewis managed a hardware store. The following spring Dora gave birth to their second child. A year later Dora's parents moved to Argonia. They bought the hardware store and named it Kinsey and Salter. Lewis was studying law under a local lawyer and preparing for the bar. 

In 1883 a Women's Christian Temperance Union was organized in Argonia. Dora joined it. One of the goals of this Union was to prohibit alcohol. They tried to influence politics but did not have the right to vote so did not have much power. 

In 1885 Argonia was incorporated. Oliver Kinsey was the first mayor, and Lewis was the city clerk. Then in 1887, municipal suffrage was won in Kansas for women. Many men were not happy about this power given to women. Women could now run for local office and vote. The Women's Christian Temperance Union held a meeting as election day approached. The group's president was not present so the meeting was run by Dora. During this meeting they selected the men they felt worthy of city offices. It was the first time they could actually vote for the ones they wanted. 

A group of local men heard about the women's caucus and wanted to put an end to it once and for all. They made their own ballot similar to the women's but putting Susanna Salter on it for mayor. Dora was the only member of the Union that lived within town lines and thus the only one able to run for an office. At this time people did not have to file to run for an office, so names could be added to the ballot in this way. They printed up their ballots and distributed them to voters. They thought that if the women saw Susanna lose miserably it would end to the women wanting to vote, run for office and take prohibition off the table. They however could not have been more wrong. 

Early voters were shocked to see Susanna Salter's name on the ballot. The chairman of the Republican party sent people to Susanna's house to let her know her name was on the ballot and to ask if she would accept if she was elected. She was doing the family wash. She said she would accept if elected. Lewis was an early voter and was shocked to see his wife's name. He was also angry to find out she agreed to consent if elected. Dora stood strong though. At 4 pm she went to vote with her parents. She left the spot for mayor blank since it was considered improper to vote for oneself at this time. Susanna Salter received two-thirds of the votes! When the results of the election were known Lewis adjusted his attitude and actually made jokes about being the husband of the mayor. 

At the time five members of town council were also elected. Years later it was revealed that three of them were in the group of 20 men who put Susanna's name on the ballot. Susanna began her first council meeting by saying, "Gentlemen, what is your pleasure? You are the duly elected officials of this town, and I am merely your presiding officer." With this statement the men knew she was not going to give them much trouble nor did they give her much trouble for her year in office. The year was politically uneventful, and the council did very little. 

Susanna Salter however was news across the country. She knew she would be scrutinized and needed to show that women could perform in politics. Many newspaper reporters came to see her in action and wrote about her. She was described with proper authority and intelligence for the office. She was later quoted saying she could not wait for her term to be up so she could return to just focusing on her family. At the age of 27 Susanna Salter was elected mayor of a town of 500 residents. With four young children at home, she successful was mayor as well as mother. She showed our nation and perhaps the world that women could lead and be active in politics and still keep home life. 

In the fall of 1887, Dora was invited to speak at the Kansas Women's Equal Suffrage Association's Convention. She was on the stage with Susan B. Anthony and Henry Blackwell, husband of Lucy Stone, as well as other famous women suffragists.  In 1893 after Susanna was mayor, the family moved to Oklahoma. The family filed a claim for land one mile south of Alva, Oklahoma when the Cherokee land opened up. They stayed on their farm there for ten years and then Lewis moved them to Augusta where he practiced law and opened a newspaper, The Headlight. A few years after that they joined a movement of people from Augusta to start the new town of Carmen. Lewis moved his law practice and newspaper. Lewis died on August 2, 1916, and Dora moved to Norman, Oklahoma so the younger children could attend state college there. She died in Norman at the age of 101, on March 17, 1961. She and Lewis are buried in Argonia Cemetery. 

Now there are a few resources to use to teach young ones about Susanna Madora Salter. The first is the Salter House Museum. They have information about Susanna as well as providing an educational guide and coloring pages for one of the books I am about to share. They also have a special campaign going on to get Susanna on a U.S. postage stamp. The perfect project to end a lesson about her. Plus I found two books to share with you--one about Susanna and the other has a her story in it. Both are very insightful!! 

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