This Archiver starts in 1984.
Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum is running for reelection. She was still using the Landon name at the time, a potent political name in Kansas. Now with Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, you may not realize the uniqueness of a woman in the United States Senate in 1978.
Depending on how you define it, Kassebaum was the first or second woman elected in her own right to the senate. Before Kassebaum, Margaret Chase Smith followed her deceased husband into the House, and then won a seat in the upper chamber in 1948.
Women in Kansas politics go back to before women could even vote in most elections. And, wouldn’t you know it, the very first women to be elected mayor of an American city was from Kansas.
Argonia, Kansas sits along U.S. 160 in Sumner County, about 20 miles north of the Oklahoma line. That’s where Susanna Madora Salter, active in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, became mayor in 1887. She presided over about 400 folks, oddly, about the same size of Argonia today.
Men being children, of course, Salter’s name was placed in nomination by the men of the town as a joke. The joke was on them, Salter received two-thirds of the vote and was elected on April fourth.
“She was a well educated person,” says Archiver historian Virgil Dean. “Met her husband while she was attending K-State. By all accounts she did herself proud. She had a background in activism and no doubt saw this as a way to strike a blow for women’s rights.”
Indeed, the election of 1887 was the first time women could vote in Kansas in a municipal election. They had been voting for school board elections since 1861. By 1912, women had full suffrage. That's eight years before the 19th Amendment.
“Kanas was ahead of most other states but it took a long time to get to the ultimate goal. Kansans, some Kansans, were struggling for a better place from the beginning,” Virgil says. In fact, there was an unsuccessful move to grant women and African Americans full suffrage at the Wyandotte constitutional convention, and again in 1867.
The first woman elected statewide in Kansas was Elizabeth Wooster in 1918. She was superintendent of public instruction, an office we no longer have. Nobody could accuse Lizzy, as she preferred to be called, of being soft on teachers. In 1922 she tried to fire several of them in Cimarron after they’d been seen at a dance. That inflexibility cost Lizzy a third term.
It took 34 years for Kansans to elected another woman statewide. In 1956, Lillie Washabaugh became state printer, another office that no longer exists. Kansas sent its first woman to Congress in 1932. Kathryn O'Loughlin McCarthy, a Democrat no less, was swept into office with FDR that year. She was one of only eight women in the House at that time, she had just one term.
Wait a minute. We haven’t heard from a woman yet. Let’s fix that right now.
“We had our first female legislator elected in 1918,” says Kansas State Rep. Stephanie Clayton from Overland Park; she also has a history degree from Emporia State. “You had the election of Minnie Grinstead that year. We have a really interesting excerpt from the Kansas City Star talking about how some of the other legislators, the male legislators were concerned, that Rep. Grinstead would nag them about their cigar smoking,” Clayton says.
Despite Minnie Grinstead and Kathryn McCarthy and Mayor Salter and even Senator Nancy Kassebaum it took a long time for Kansans to make a woman governor.
Democrat Joan Finney was not only the first woman governor of Kansas, she got there by ousting incumbent Republican Mike Hayden in 1990. And you know what else? Finney was the first woman to ever unseat an incumbent man to become governor.
Finney would only serve one term. She chose not to seek nomination for a second term in 1994, and unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic nomination for senate in 1996.
In 2002, Kansas elected its second female governor. Kathleen Sebelius, another Democrat, was elected in with 53 percent of the vote. Sebelius was reelected four years later with 58 percent, and she would go on to serve in President Obama’s cabinet.
So after all those fits and starts, how are women doing now in Kansas politics today?
In 2017, 29 percent of the Kansas Legislature was female. And that percentage has been pretty steady since 1989, about a quarter of lawmakers have been women. But here’s what’s puzzling: in 1989, Kansas was ranked eighth in the country but with about the same number of women in the Legislature, today Kansas ranks 18th.
I went to another veteran politician to talk about this. Sandy Preager was mayor of Lawrence in the state house and senate and had three terms as Insurance Commissioner. A moderate Republican, there were those who wanted her to run for governor. I wanted to know why more women aren’t getting into politics.
“Politics are ugly right now. It’s not fun,” she says. “Maybe it’s the sensitivity of women. I think by and large women have trouble doing that sort of thing. The women I worked with (in the Kansas Legislature) were team players to just get the job done and not worry who got the credit.”
Clayton says she’s 40 years old and does not believe she’ll see a woman president in her lifetime. I’m 60 and I absolutely believe I will. I’m not sure why I’m more optimistic than these two accomplished women politicians but I am. Maybe it’s because I learned my first political lessons from my mom, active in politics her whole life. Perhaps it’s because I’ve covered a lot of strong and smart women in the Kansas Legislature. Or maybe its the ghost of Mayor Susanna Salter of Argonia, Kansas who in 1887 told a bunch men to go pound sand, that she had a better way.