Mary Elizabeth Lease

WAIS should pay more attention to women in politics around the world, and this end is served by John Gehl, who sends this bio of the American populist reformer Mary Elizabeth Lease (1850-1933), whose powerful and colorful oratory made her a prominent political figure during the Progressive era of U. S. history.  Beginning in the late 1880s until her retirement from public life in 1918, Mary Lease took up a series of activist causes that included agrarian reform, woman suffrage, Free Silver, prohibition, the popular election of senators, government supervision of corporations, and the nationalization of railroads. When she first began speaking out she was mistakenly known as Mary Ellen, and her oratory was so flamboyant that her enemies called her "Mary Yellin Lease." At that time she was also advising Kansas farmers "to raise less corn and more hell," and that phrase has been associated with her name ever since.   In 1895 Lease committed her ideas to writing in her book, The Problem of Civilization Solved, in which she proposed ending militarism, poverty, and business monopoly by an intricate mix of free trade, tionalization of major utilities and other reforms.

Lease was born Mary Clyens in Ridgway, Pennsylvania, the daughter of an Irish political refugee who was killed in the American Civil War. In 1868, upon graduating from St. Elizabeth's Academy in Allegany, New York, she moved to Osage Mission, Kansas, to teach at St. Anne's Academy. In 1873 she married Charles L. Lease, a pharmacist's clerk. In 1874 the couple moved to Denison, Texas, where four of their five children were born, and she began to educate herself in the law.      In 1883 the Leases moved to Wichita, Kansas, where in 1885 Mary began speaking publicly on behalf of Irish Nationalist causes. Earlier in Texas she had discovered her talent for public speaking when she spoke at Woman's Christian Temperance Union meetings. She entered Kansas politics full-time in 1888 when she ran for office on the ticket of the Union Labor party and then joined the Farmers' Alliance, or Populist, party.   The populists called her the "People's Joan of Arc" and in their 1890 campaign she made more than 160 speeches. In 1892 she traveled the West and South with Populist presidential candidate James Weaver, and the next year she pursued a race for U.S. senator and was vice president of the World Peace Congress in Chicago.

By 1896, however, populist political prospects had so dimmed that Lease gladly accepted Joseph Pulitzer's offer to write political copy for the New York World. After moving to New York City she remained active as a speaker for numerous reform causes, including prohibition, woman suffrage, and birth control. She also supported the Theodore Roosevelt Progressives in the 1912 Bull Moose campaign.  She never returned to Kansas except for a short visit in 1902 to obtain a divorce. From 1908 until her retirement from public life in 1918 she was an occasional lecturer for the New York City Board of Education. She died in Callicoon, New York in 1933.

 <> im for Richard Stiller's Queen of Populists: The Story of Mary Elizabeth

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Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: October 23, 2004