It’s pretty easy to hoax people. We all want to be deceived, but only up to a point. Some hoaxes are fun and pleasant, others malicious and unpleasant. We’d like a way to tell the difference (Robert Carroll).

Jul 23, 2023

Sexist Joke with USA Historical Significance


Susanna “Dora” Salter was doing her laundry when she got the news: She had just been elected mayor of Argonia, Kansas. Just like that, the 29-year-old became the first woman mayor in the United States — without even mounting a campaign.

Salter’s name had appeared on the ballot as a cruel joke designed to humiliate her and her cohort for daring to speak out in public about politics. Now the joke was on the men of the tiny town when she ended up in charge.

It was 1887, and when it came to suffrage, Kansas was one of the country’s most forward-thinking states. Twenty years earlier, it had become the first state to hold a referendum on whether women should vote. The issue was decided alongside another referendum on whether black men should vote.

Suffrage activists all over the United States descended on Kansas to convince its residents to extend the franchise to women. The state’s Republicans, however, sought to undermine the potential alliance between women’s suffrage leaders and former abolitionists by pitting them against each other, prompting a lasting rift. And echoes of the anti-suffrage campaign, which characterized suffragists as bitter spinsters disrupting the natural order — resounded through Kansas long after both groups lost the campaign.

The fight for suffrage continued until 1887, when the Kansas legislature granted women the ability to vote and run-in local elections. Though women had achieved suffrage in other states, none had ever won a mayoral election — until Salter.

Salter was the daughter of the first mayor of Argonia, Kansas, a city with a population of less than 500 in south-central Kansas, and her husband was city clerk. She was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a religious group that lobbied for the curbing and prohibition of alcohol use nationwide. The temperance movement was one of the few socially acceptable places for women to engage in public life. The WCTU’s message that women needed to be protected from men’s outsized appetites jibed with the perception that women were the arbiters of morality. The organization simultaneously reinforced gender norms and gave women real power. But many men, especially in Kansas, where liquor was outlawed in 1880, hated the organization and what they saw as the presumptuousness of its members.

When women finally got the right to vote in local elections, the WCTU sprang into action. At last it had a political platform, and the Kansas group decided to endorse a group of temperance-minded male candidates. As historian Doris Weatherford explained, “Susanna Salter presided at this caucus, and some male attendees, offended by female presumption to endorse candidates, devised a convoluted plan to embarrass these assertive women.”

The scheme went like this: A group of Argonia men met in secret and compiled a list of candidates that was identical to the one the WCTU had drawn up — with a noteworthy exception. Instead of including the name of the male candidate for mayor endorsed by the WCTU, they put Salter’s name on the ballot instead. The men assumed that no man would vote for a woman mayor and that Salter’s loss would teach her and her fellow WCTU members a lesson. Unbeknownst to Salter, ballots were printed up with her name on them.

It didn’t exactly go as planned. When the WCTU women saw Salter’s name on the ballot, they voted for her instead of the man they had nominated. A group of men who were unamused by the secret caucus and the joke ballot decided to vote for Salter, too. Salter’s husband heard about the scheme and scrambled to try to get the town’s men not to vote for his wife; which some found humorous and voted for her to spite him. As a result, many men voted for her out of amusement.

In the end, Salter received two-thirds of the vote. Though she had been nominated without her consent or knowledge, she decided to take office.

She was the first woman mayor in the United States, which made her a national celebrity. Newspapers followed her, often writing ironic asides about her ability to do her job, and letters poured into Argonia praising Salter for her temerity and mocking her hubris.

True to her position as a WCTU woman, Mayor Salter shuttered Argonia’s gambling halls and saloons, and worked to improve its infrastructure and public safety. “This indisposition on the part of Mayor Salter to ‘let up on the boys’ seriously mars her chances of ever being a candidate for the office again,” remarked the Ontario Globe, “as it isn’t likely that next election day will find the male voters in a joking mood.”

Newspapers remarked with wonder that Salter seemed perfectly capable of presiding over city council meetings, and made sure to tell readers about her looks and even her weight. In turn, Salter made sure her femininity was on full display for reporters. It was widely reported that she made her own clothes and had been informed of her candidacy while bending over her washtub.

When asked by a reporter from the Boston Daily Globe whether she planned on a political career, Salter demurred. “No, indeed,” she replied. “I shall be very glad when my term of office expires, and shall be only too happy to thereafter devote myself entirely, as I have always done heretofore, to the care of my family.”

She gave birth to her fifth child while mayor — the baby died soon after — and, true to her word, she retired from office after a single term and never ran for public office again.

Salter may not have chosen her position as mayor, but her term in office inspired other women to run. In 1888, Mary D. Lowman ran for office in Oskaloosa, Kansas, and served with the nation’s first all-woman city council. Altogether, seven of the nine U.S. women elected as mayor within the next decade were in Kansas.


Author: Erin Blakemore




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