A Joke Election Led To Our First Woman Mayor (And Prohibition)

A Joke Election Led To Our First Woman Mayor (And Prohibition)

Before April 4, 1887, nobody outside of the state had ever heard or cared about tiny Argonia, Kansas. It's safe to bet that no one since then has either. In one vote, the tiny, inconsequential cowtown changed the course of American history, electing the first woman mayor. All the more shocking as she was a 27-year-old with no political experience whatsoever, truly a moment for suffragettes to celebrate and savor.

Nah, it wasn't. Susanna Madora Salter was the victim (and simultaneously the beneficiary) of a trolling job gone disastrously awry. Yes, trolling voting has been a thing long before the "Dub the Dew" debacle. Her entire career was a gimmick, only serving one term before abandoning politics completely.

Salter did not throw her name into the running and only reluctantly agreed to play along after she had been nominated by proxy. Salter was a housewife and member of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and this last detail is really what made her a target. The organization made a name for itself as busy-body buzzkills looking to take away everyone's favorite hobby. Being 1880s Quaker-country, the only thing you really could do for fun is get blitzed on illicit moonshine while staring at a pasture.

RF Vila/Wiki Commons

“Fun” not arriving in the state until cow tipping was invented in 1904.

In all fairness to the WCTU, America did--and arguably still does--have a problem with drinking. Singling out booze as the primary catalyst for domestic/child abuse, poverty, absentee parents, and general crime/anti-social behavior, the temperance ladies made themselves public enemy number one to their neighbors and frat boys everywhere. It should also be mentioned that they also hated foreigners. The Irish, Italians, and German Catholics were perceived as a drunken scourge to the ruling class of supposedly morally pristine Anglo-Saxon Protestants. So, the town's distaste for Salter makes a little more sense. 

In short, the teetotalers at the WCTU were not exactly good at making friends. If you ever wondered how the prohibitionist campaign got so popular in the US and Canada, it pretty much all starts with subtle xenophobia. That and Sunday school teachers smashing up saloons with axes. Their leader, Carrie A. Nation, claimed God spoke directly to her, instructing her to destroy people's livelihoods and obliterate every container of alcohol in sight, grinning like a stone-cold nutcase all the while.

The Bismarck Tribune

Conflict was inevitable. For the citizens of Argonia, Kansas, the threat of losing their supply of gin and beer was too horrible a thought to contemplate. Only recently granted voting rights, no one actually calculated the power of female voters or that a female candidate might secure a large enough proportion of male votes to win a contest. It was a cruel stunt undertaken without much thought put into it. (They were drunks, after all.) Her nomination, as it turns out, had little to do with her personally. The WCTU had taken it upon themselves to select candidates to run for city offices. At a caucus, she represented the WCTU in lieu of the male candidates her group was endorsing in the upcoming election, Salter the only one who lived nearby and available to attend that day. This pissed off those who despised the group. 

To teach her and the WCTU a lesson, the local townspeople nominated her to run for mayor, with the thinking being that she would suffer a humiliating defeat, proving the WCTU was a joke, thus chasing the booze patrol out of town in tears. Her name was selected by a fluke. Through an informal process, candidates didn't need to file papers, only needing someone to request their names on the ballot. The pranksters had done all this quietly without anyone even knowing until election day. Their brilliant stunt almost worked.

If you think that such a crucial turning point in politics could only happen in New York, Boston, or some other sophisticated large urban area, think again. At one point in history, the rural west was the most progressive place on earth when it came to women's rights. (It's complicated.) It's the sort of weird-ass event that could only happen in a quirky, small frontier town. The local reps from the Sumner County Republican Party caught wind of the scheme and convinced her to accept the nomination if she won. With their support, the small town voters were easily swayed to throw their support behind the unknown housewife based solely on the fact she came from a respectable local family and possessed the brand endorsement of the most dominant political party in the country. The teetotalers triumphed in a landslide.

Kansas Historical Society

And celebrated into the wee hours of 8 pm with a round of lukewarm milk.

Instead of settling the whole matter of prohibition, the prank widely publicized it for the whole nation to witness. Rather than shining a light on the stereotype that females are too dainty or stupid to be fit for office or even to vote at that, the Argonia incident only encouraged more interest in the temperance crusade and universal suffrage. Salter may not have cared for political life, but she made her point. No longer could women be taken for granted. Somewhere in Kansas, there were a bunch of sad men drinking themselves blind, dwelling on the political headache they had created for themselves and, soon enough, a whole nation of beer drinkers.

Top Image: Tookapic/Pixabay


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