Mary Elizabeth Lease, or Mary Ellen, was active in the woman suffrage movement and the People's Party and also as an orator, writer, and activist, particularly in the Great Plains. She is perhaps best remembered for allegedly shouting, “Kansas had better stop raising corn and begin raising hell,” a statement she denied ever making, and she is credited with giving the People's Party its name (Peck 453 ). She was famously fictionalized in Hamlin Garland's A Spoil of Office in 1893.
While Lease liked to claim that she was born in 1853, she was really born Mary Clyens in Ridgeway, Pennsylvania, in 1850 to Irish immigrants. She blamed the Democratic Party for the deaths of her father and brothers during the Civil War. At the age of 20, she moved to Kansas to teach school at the Osage Mission. It was there that she met her husband, Charles L. Lease, a local pharmacist, in 1873. The couple tried their hand at farming in Kingman County, Kansas, and later Denison, Texas, but failed both times. During this time they had six children, four of whom lived to adulthood.
Moving to Wichita, Kansas, in 1883, Charles returned to his previous occupation, while Mary became actively involved in several community organizations. Her public speaking career began when she started raising money for a group called the Irish National League, an Irish political organization that sought to help poor tenant farmers. She later became involved with the Farmers’ Alliance and the Knights of Labor, which led to her involvement with the People's Party. She was also passionately involved in the temperance movement and the woman suffrage movement. She studied law in her free time and was the first woman to pass the Kansas bar. In 1888, she left the Republican Party to go to work for the Union Labor Party, and she spoke at its state convention.
Roughly six feet tall, she had a passionate speaking style that could capture an audience's attention, and she was not above stretching the truth. Not one to mince words, she relied on passion and emotion to move her listeners. Emporia Gazette editor William Allen White, who was extremely critical of her, claimed that she had a “golden voice—a deep, rich contralto, a singing voice that had hypnotic qualities” and that “she could recite the multiplication table and set a crowd hooting and harrahing at her will” (Risjord 80 , Norton 541 ). She had a presence that her supporters and detractors could admire or admonish.
Critics found her extremely unattractive and claimed that she was foul-mouthed, vulgar, and often illogical. Those enraptured by her called her “Queen Mary” or “Mother Lease,” and those disgusted by
her antics called her “the Kansas Pythoness” or “Mary Yellin.” Another reporter summed her up, “As one of those radical, strong, warm natures which feels and has impulses rather than thoughts. She can see a wrong and feel an injury quickly, but would be slow and far from sure in her remedies. Her mind is untrained, and while displaying plenty of a certain power, is illogical, lacks sequence and scatters like a 10-gauge gun” (Clanton 392 ). Lease embodied the emotion of Populism, leaving others to present the logical remedies of regulation, subtreasury plans, and banking reform.
By 1890, Kansas farmers were under severe financial pressure because of high interest mortgages, a financial recession, and unreasonable railroad rates, leading to the creation of the People's Party, which Mary quickly joined. She believed there were “two great enemies of thought and progress, the aristocracy of royalty and the aristocracy of gold” (Lease, Cooper Union Hall Speech ), believing that the common man was a “wage slave” to big business. She stated in one speech, “Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street. The great common people of this country are slaves, and monopoly is the master” (Lease, “In Defense of Home and Hearth” ). That year she delivered 160 speeches. She even left the state and began speaking across the West and South for the Populist cause.
Lease also pushed feminist ideals and claimed that it was men's inability to do the right thing that was forcing women to enter politics. She stated, “Thank God we women are blameless for this political muddle you men have dragged us into. . . . Ours is a grand and holy mission . . . to place the mothers of this nation on an equality with the fathers.” She echoed the ideas of “social housekeeping” espoused by Progressive reformers without the commitment to the feminine ideals of submissiveness and domesticity.
While the Populists did not win the presidency, they received more than 1 million votes, roughly 8.5 percent of the popular vote; carried the states of Idaho, Nevada, Colorado, and Kansas; and held 22 electoral votes. Lease returned to Kansas to help her party win control of the state government and rescue the state's farmers from the “vested interests.” She was a forceful proponent behind the election of Lorenzo D. Lewelling as the new governor and was held in such high regard that she was nominated for the U.S. Senate but could not garner enough legislative votes to put her in office. At a time when women still could not vote in national elections, Mary Lease nearly became the first female senator in U.S. history. Instead she was the first woman to be appointed as the state superintendent of charities.
Yet Lease struggled when the Democrats and Populists joined forces to achieve electoral victory, particularly with Lewelling's efforts to stay clear of the issues of prohibition and woman suffrage and his distribution of political appointments to Democratic allies in an attempt to keep this coalition together. Finding themselves bogged down in a war with Republicans, which became known as the Kansas Legislative War of 1893, coupled with the need to keep the fusion together along with claims of corruption and the realities of governing, caused the Populists to abandon many of their reforms.
Even the leading Populist newspapers in Kansas began to take potshots at the new administration. Lease added fuel to the fire with a November 10, 1893, interview in the Topeka Daily Capital. She stated that Lewelling had no “backbone” and was a “weak man.” She threw several other verbal jabs regarding corruption in the administration and its moderate positions. Mary backtracked a few days later in the Wichita Beacon, claiming that she never said anything negative of Governor Lewelling, a “brave, noble man” (Lease, “In Defense of Home and Hearth” ).
Things between the administration and Lease were moving toward a breaking point as Lewelling had repeatedly approached her regarding appointing Democrats to jobs under her control, which she bristled at each and every time. Tired of her insubordination, on December 28, 1893, Lewelling notified Lease that he would remove her from her position on the Board of Charities.
A few days later, she disputed this, claiming in the Kansas City Star that it was not her refusal to do the administration's bidding but rather that she intended to introduce a woman suffrage plank at the next Populist state convention and that the governor was going to stand in the way of women's rights to keep their partnership with the Democrats. She stated, “Let me say now that the woman suffrage plank will go in and that there will be three tickets in the field. As to fusion the people won't stand it” (Clanton 393 ).
In February, the state Supreme Court ruled that the administration could not remove her from office. Yet she made a clean break with the People's Party and wrote a book, The Problem of Civilization Solved, that advocated colonizing Latin America, annexing Canada and the West Indies, and establishing a free trade zone across the entire western hemisphere. Moving to New York, she announced that she was now a socialist while pursuing more practical activities, including teaching, practicing law, and writing for the New York World.
In 1902, Mary Lease divorced her husband and continued to work for the political causes in which she so fervently believed. She found of peace with the rise of Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive movement, seeing his presidency as the natural outgrowth of almost everything the Populists wanted, stating, “The Progressive party has adopted our platform, clause for clause, plank by plank” (Hicks 421 ).
Mary Lease left public life in 1921 to spend the remaining years moving between her surviving children's homes. Twelve years later, she quietly passed away on the family farm in Sullivan County, New York, on October 29, 1933.
Trevor Jason Soderstrum
See also: Garland, Hamlin (1860–1940) ; Gilded Age ; Kansas, Populism in ; Knights of Labor ; Lewelling, Lorenzo D. (1846–1900) ; Plains and Midwest, Populism in the ; Progressivism ; Prohibition (1919–1933)
Buhle, Mari Jo. Women and American Socialism, 1870–1920. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1983.
Clanton, O. Gene. Kansas Populism: Ideas and Men. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1969.
Hicks, John D. The Populist Revolt: A History of the Farmers’ Alliance and the People's Party. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1931.
Lease, Mary. “In Defense of Home and Hearth: Mary Lease Raises Hell among the Farmers,” n.d. http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5304/ . Accessed January 7, 2013.
Lease, Mary. Cooper Union Hall Speech, August 12, 1896. http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAleaseM.htm . Accessed January 7, 2013.
Norton, Mary Beth. A People and a Nation: Since 1865. Farmington Hills, MI: Cengage Learning, 2005.
Peck, Harry Thurston. Twenty Years of the Republic, 1885–1905. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1906.
Risjord, Norman K. Populists and Progressives. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.