UVM senior writes play on the nation's first female mayor

A native of Malta in upstate New York, Sarah Evans’ academic odyssey at UVM has taken her many unexpected places, including Argonia, Kansas, a small town (population 492) just north of the Oklahoma border.

Argonia was the first community in the U.S. to choose a woman as mayor—it happened in 1887 when 27-year-old Susanna Salter was elected. Evans, an English major, became intrigued by Salter’s story, and her research took a creative bent. She ended up writing her senior honor’s thesis in the form of a play about Salter’s life titled Like Any Other Woman. The piece was performed this spring by the University Players, UVM’s theatre club.

“I was looking for a strong female character to write about, someone less well known where I didn’t have to strip away a lot of mythology,” Evans said. “It started out as a personal project for fun, but then I got more and more interested in Salter’s life. John Franklin (associate professor of classics) encouraged me to apply for a summer undergraduate research fellowship.”

She won the fellowship, which supported her travel costs to Argonia last summer. She interviewed townspeople and local officials, visited Salter’s home, which now serves as a public museum, and conducted research at the Kansas state archives.

The more she dug into the primary source material, the more she became fascinated by Salter the woman—what motivated her to run for office? What sorts of obstacles did she encounter? The answers became entangled in the politics of the Temperance Movement sweeping the country at the time, the role of women in public life, and the sorts of small domestic dramas that play out in relationships then and now.

“Her husband Lewis was an aspiring lawyer studying to pass the bar exam,” Evans said. “He was college educated but could only find work at a supply store, and her election upset his notion of what was more important. In the end, he accepted Susanna’s election—he turned out to be a supportive, caring man, so he was my favorite character to develop.”

Evans’ script also stays true to the real story behind the mayoral election. An advocate of temperance (supporting regulation of alcohol), Salter was never originally a candidate. Anti-temperance citizens (known as the “wets”) snuck into the Argonia town hall the morning of the election and replaced the Temperance candidate’s name with Salter’s. They assumed no one would vote for a woman.

Local Republicans were not amused by the subterfuge, and on election day they approached Salter to tell her that she would have their full support if she agreed to run. Salter assented and won the election.

“She only served one year as mayor, but the cool thing is that her election led to many other women running for office,” said Evans. “She set the stage for getting more women in politics.”

Evans has always loved drama—she danced and acted in high school and got involved with the University Players her sophomore year. She also has experience in playwriting—she wrote a script she describes as a “superhero comedy” last year, but Salter’s story presented more serious subject matter. Evans received enthusiastic support from faculty mentors and fellow students.

“I had some great help from my advisor Stephen Cramer (a lecturer in the English department). He’s a terrific editor—he found parts of the script that seemed superfluous and helped me refine.”

The University Players regularly present original student work, and Evans convinced them to produce Like Any Other Woman. The play recently ran for three performances at the Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center on the Burlington waterfront.

“I felt a little bit greedy, being the writer and director of the production,” Evans said. “It was really the assistant director and stage manager who made it all work—they had lots of great suggestions.”

One of the audiences Evans had in mind when she wrote the play were middle school students. In addition to her English major, Evans graduated with a degree in middle level education from the College of Education and Social Services—she was finishing up her student teaching at Edmunds Middle School in Burlington while working on the production.

“The play seemed to provide so much richness about this moment in history, so I had this middle school teacher mentality in my head. I tried to write it so that a sixth-grader could understand it,” she said.

Evans has already accomplished something many playwrights can wait a lifetime for—seeing the play come to life on stage. “Like Any Other Woman” may have another run coming up soon—a Kansas journalist Evans did an interview with reached out to the local high school about presenting a production there.

“Sarah’s work is a perfect example of the best of liberal arts because it crosses the disciplines of history, English and theatre,” said Mary Louise Kete, associate professor of English who served as a reader for Evans’ thesis. "While the exceptional research and writing of this script was an individual product, Sarah was able to mount a full production that brought together students from across the various colleges."

 

PUBLISHED

05-05-2017
Kevin C. Coburn
UVM students Rachel Pepin and Luke Nawrocki as Susanna and Lewis Salter. Susanna Salter had a total of nine children, one of whom was born during her brief tenure as mayor of Argonia, Kansas.
The Salter House, now a museum, in Argonia.