Play about Argonia mayor premieres in Vermont

Rachel Pepin and Luke Stoughton Nawrocki played Susanna Madora Salter and husband Lewis Salter in “Like Any Other Woman,” a new play about America’s first female mayor that premiered in Vermont earlier this month.

By Sam Jack

On April 1 and 2, a new play about historic Argonia mayor Susanna Madora Salter premiered at the University of Vermont.

UVM senior Sarah Evans wrote the two-and-a-half hour play, titled “Like Any Other Woman,” after research visits to Argonia, Wichita’s Cowtown Museum and Topeka’s Kansas State Historical Society archives last June. She directed the play’s premiere with UVM’s University Players.

The action of the play is set between March 1887 and February 1888, covering Salter’s election as America’s first female mayor as well as the events of her one-year term in office.

A temperance activist, Salter was put forward as a mayoral candidate by a group of men who wanted to humiliate her, but she turned the tables by agreeing to serve if elected and then winning the vote.

Evans got a grant from UVM that allowed her to pursue the research that informed the script.

“I wanted to research a woman that hadn’t popped up often in the history books. I found Susanna Salter’s name, researched her a bit more, and she was really interesting to me, because she was so young when she was really influential,” Evans said. “She had been to college, which was uncommon for women back in the 1880s. She was only 27, and she had four children at the time of her ascending to being mayor. I thought she was a really interesting person to write about.”

The play is grounded in historical facts, but Evans took some liberties for dramatic effect, she said.

“The first act is introducing her as a person, and then goes into the whole process of how she got put on the ballot and elected,” Evans said. “The second act is the summer of 1887 – basically some of the events from when she was mayor. She went to the Kansas Women’s Equal Suffrage Association convention, which is where she met Susan B. Anthony. The third act is when she’s deciding not to run for mayor again, but she kind of is reflecting on how far she’s come, and how far women still have to go in the future.”

Evans said her favorite character to write was Susanna Salter’s husband, Lewis, who was placed in the unprecedented role of “first gentleman.”

“From what I read about the real Lewis, he was a really kind husband. He at first was a little uncertain about whether or not he wanted his wife to be the mayor, but eventually he made jokes about how proud he was to be the first husband. He’s very sweet and supportive through the play, although at first it’s a little bit hard for him,” she said.

As the U.S. presidential campaign was unfolding last fall, Evans was deep in the weeds of her drafting process. She finished her script around the time of the election, which pitted now-President Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton, the first woman to receive a major U.S. party’s presidential nomination.

“At the end of the play, her husband says he’s sure women will get the chance to vote in national elections eventually, and she says, ‘Eventually.’ That kind of applies now, because even though a woman didn’t get elected to the presidency, I think (the election) gave me, as a woman, hope that maybe someday there will be,” Evans said.

The script of “Like Any Other Woman” is available as a print-on-demand title at www.lulu.com, though Evans said she needs to make some updates so that the script will reflect the play as it was performed. Those interested in contacting Evans can reach her at sarah.evans@uvm.edu.