SECRET LIVES

How a Sexist Prank Elected America’s First Female Mayor

Susanna Madora Salter just wanted the men in her town to stop being drunks. They just wanted to humiliate her.

Photo Illustration by Brigette Supernova/The Daily Beast

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s video this week celebrating her presumed emergence as the first female major party nominee quoted Shirley Chisholm. A recording has the former member of Congress and 1972 presidential candidate saying: “Those who think that the women’s liberation movement is a joke, may I disabuse you of that notion. It’s about equal opportunity.” Indeed, women have been turning men’s mockery into female feats for years. In fact, the candidacy of the first woman elected as mayor—boosters insist to any political office—in the United States—began as a sexist prank.

In 1887, feeling empowered from having become eligible to vote four years earlier, women in the Quaker village of Argonia, Kansas, joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Crusading against booze expressed what some historians call “maternal feminism,” others call “municipal housekeeping,” going public with the motherly impulse to cultivate virtue.

WCTU women were often insulted and harassed, accused of being lesbians and doused with water or beer when they protested outside saloons. But, the historian Carl Degler notes, by the mid-1870s, “what has once been treated as a joke … began to be perceived as a groundswell of sentiment that in some places was even affecting the outcome of local elections.” This “Woman’s Uprising” inspired WCTU’s Argonia chapter to select a slate of prohibitionist men to run for mayor and city council.

Pro-booze rivals hated prohibition—and this female intrusion into politics. Twenty “wets” decided to endorse the same slate with one difference. Mischievously, surreptitiously, they nominated a WCTU officer to run for mayor, the only member eligible because she actually lived in town. 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.

Back then in Argonia—as in most of America—candidates did not register before Election Day. Partisans distributed ballots they printed listing their preferred candidates for voters to drop into the ballot box. Voters that morning, including Lewis Allison Salter, were shocked to see Mrs. Salter’s name topping the ballot. Leading Republicans hurried to the Salter home, interrupting Susanna Salter hanging the wash. They proposed tricking the tricksters, vowing, “we will elect you and just show those fellows who framed up this deal a thing or two.”

Word quickly spread in this town of 376 that Mrs. Salter was now a serious candidate. The WCTU members shifted, giving Salter a two-thirds majority—and a surprised Mr. Slater when he returned home. Soon, adjusting, he was glibly calling himself the “husband of the mayor.”

That joke was mild compared to the coast-to-coast sneering. Mailbags of letters overwhelmed the Argonia post office. One anonymous scribe wrote:

“When a woman leaves her natural sphere,And without her sex's modesty or fearAssays the part of man,She, in her weak attempts to rule,But makes herself a mark for ridicule,A laughing-stock and sham.Article of greatest use is to her thenSomething worn distinctively by men —A pair of pants will do.Thus she will plainly demonstrateThat Nature made a great mistakeIn sexing such a shrew.”

On the card, the writer drew a picture of men’s underpants.

Other correspondents gushed. One woman wrote: “The dreams of my childhood have bloomed, and ripened, into a rich fruitage, in the person of Mrs. Salter…. I feel proud of My Sister Woman in her manifest ability as Mayor of Argonia.”

Mayor Salter banned hard cider as part of the broader WCTU clampdown. Nevertheless, she refused to run again, being “only too happy to thereafter devote myself entirely, as I always have done heretofore, to the care of my family.” One editorial sneered: “She is tired of the burdens of office. [She plans to] return to private life and leave the government of Argonia to the care of the sterner sex. Mayor Salter's experience proves that woman suffrage is its own cure.” But the Rushville (Ind.) Republican, on August 18, 1887, said Mayor Salter “is said to discharge the duties of her office in the most acceptable manner.” Female trailblazers were polarizing then too.

The Salters soon moved West to Oklahoma. The ex-mayor lived in retirement until 1961, dying at the age of 101. Still, the precedent was set.

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While mockery has often been a choice weapon in the oppressors’ arsenal, yesterday’s joke can become today’s revolution—and tomorrow’s status quo. In 1964, Congressman Howard Smith, a Southern racist, injected a “poison pill” amendment to kill the proposed Civil Rights Act. Smirking, he proposed adding “sex” to the Title VII ban on discriminating in “employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, or national origin.” Echoing his Argonian ancestors, he reasoned that only crazies (and Communists!) would mandate the federal government to guarantee equal employment for all, including women.

In her epilogue to later editions of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan recalled arriving in Washington shortly after Title VII’s “sex discrimination part had been tacked on as a joke and a delaying maneuver.” She noted that even Great Society Lyndon Johnson men scoffed. “At the first press conference after the law went into effect, the administrator in charge of enforcing it joked about the ban on sex discrimination. ‘It will give men equal opportunity to be Playboy bunnies.’” The insults inspired Friedan to found NOW, the National Organization for Women.

Hillary Clinton has spent decades “entertaining” such male buffoons with jests that became reality. As Arkansas’s First Lady, when she testified for the Clintons’ education reforms in 1983, one legislator smirked, ‘It looks like we’ve elected the wrong Clinton.” A decade later, when Clinton wowed the nation while testifying for the health care reform she engineered, national legislators were equally condescending. The Democratic Congressman Dan Rostenkowski said, “I think in the very near future the President will be known as your husband.’” The first lady smiled politely.

Radio stations played a parody of Helen Reddy’s I am Woman anthem: “I am Hillary, hear me roar, I’m more important than Al Gore.” And, inevitably, the Hearst columnist Marianne Means wondered, “Is this the emergence of a president-in-training?” Means explained: “No woman has been deemed sufficiently well-known, qualified or campaign tested for the ultimate political responsibility. But in a few years we will have that woman. And she already sleeps in the White House.”

So, yes, Hillary Clinton should thank the many women trailblazers before her, including the overlooked Mayor Salter. But, ironically, Hillary’s unacknowledged co-conspirators have been the many bigots whose bullying ultimately generated enough blowback to clear many obstacles along the way. And that’s no joke.