Local roots of the women’s suffrage movement

Woman Suffrage Stamp

Argonia, Kansas, is an unlikely spot to begin a story about the hundredth anniversary of women winning the right to vote. Most people think of Seneca Falls, New York — the site of the first women’s rights convention in 1848 — and names like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

But Susanna Salter? Argonia? Kansas?

“Susanna Salter is a significant figure because, even though her election as the country’s first woman mayor came about because of a joke, her acceptance of the position represents the larger story of women demanding more of a political presence and fighting for temperance and voting rights,” says Dr. Sarah Bell, a scholar at the University of Kansas.

Yes, the first woman elected mayor in the United States was from little Argonia, forty-five miles southwest of Wichita.

The Nineteenth Amendment became federal law on August 26, 1920. For nearly seventy-five years prior, suffrage had been an issue intertwined with temperance.

Leaders of the temperance movement, primarily women, were concerned about the negative impact of alcohol on family and community life. Temperance advocates knew that in order to pass and enforce laws restricting or eliminating alcohol consumption, they would need the right to vote.

Salter was an active member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Just a few weeks before her election, white Kansas women received the right to vote in municipal elections. They had been voting in school board elections since 1861.

A few men thought it would be funny to put a woman’s name on the ballot in the mayor’s race. The joke was on them. Salter won by a handy margin. During that same election in April 1887, Syracuse, Kansas, a small town near Garden City, elected five women to the town council.

“When you have twelve European immigrants with a wagon, some tools and a bag of seeds trying to turn a windswept grassland into a point of commerce, and seven of those people are women with mud on their boots, circumstances have a way of leveling,” Sarah Smarsh wrote in her memoir Heartland.

Salter’s candidacy and the entire temperance movement in Kansas would not have been possible without the work of Clarina Nichols, who worked to get women the right to vote in school board elections, own property and have custody of children and made the University of Kansas one of the first colleges in the country to admit women.

“There never was a more hopeful interest concentrated on the legislation of any single State, than when Kansas submitted the two propositions to her people to take the words ‘white’ and ‘male’ from her Constitution,” wrote Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1867.

Although Missouri women were not as active as Kansas women, Virginia Minor of St. Louis founded the Women’s Suffrage Association of Missouri in 1867. She also sued for the right to register to vote, a case that eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court. She lost, but Minor continued to be an advocate. The organization she founded became the League of Women Voters.

In the midst of all this, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was organizing. In addition to concerns about the negative impact of alcohol, the group worked on prison reform and labor rights.

One great nemesis of that group was Kansas extremist Carry Nation, born Carry Moore in Cass County, Missouri. The day she married Dr. Charles Gloyd, he showed up at the church falling down drunk. Sixteen months later, he died of liver disease.

The young widow moved to Warrensburg with a baby in tow and earned a teaching certificate at what is now the University of Central Missouri. She taught school, then married a local minister named David Nation.

Carry settled in Medicine Lodge, Kansas, after the Jayhawk state became the first to ban alcohol. Nevertheless, Medicine Lodge was home to seven saloons. Carry set out to close them all. Twice a day, she led prayer vigils outside. Later, standing in the middle of the saloon, Carry would sing hymns at the top of her voice or fall to her knees calling for God to vanquish the world of alcohol and its evils.

On December 11, 1894, she smashed a ten-gallon barrel of whiskey on the streets of Medicine Lodge using a hatchet as other women cheered her on, then set fire to its contents while singing and praising God.

A few months later, Carry took a wagon filled with rocks and bricks to nearby Kiowa and smashed up three saloons in that town, causing the first of her forty-one arrests. During a particularly nasty three-week-long attack on Topeka, including the saloon in the state capitol building, Nation engaged in shouting matches with elected officials, including Gov. William Stanley. On more than one occasion, she shouted, “You wouldn’t give me the vote, so I had to use a rock.”

Nation did not live to see prohibition become law. She died in Leavenworth in 1911 and was buried next to her parents in Belton.