Mary E. Lease

Lease's 1896 address at Cooper Union Hall

Mary Elizabeth Lease (1850-1933) was born Mary Clyens in western Pennsylvania, the daughter of Irish parents who emigrated from County Monaghan during the Famine. Her father and older brother died as Union soldiers in the Civil War. Though many Irish-Americans were Democrats, Mary Lease's lifelong hatred of that party stemmed largely from her father's death at the notorious Andersonville Prison. Because of the war, she later noted, she grew up poor.

In 1870 Mary, a Catholic, left her widowed mother and moved to Kansas to teach at a mission school. She soon married a local druggist, Charles Lease, and for two years the Leases enjoyed middle-class prosperity. Then, suddenly, Charles lost everything in the financial panic of 1873. The couple started over in Texas, where they lost two children in infancy. Four others survived--Charles, Louisa, Grace, and Ben Hur, the last named for the Christian hero of Lew Wallace's popular novel.

Mary Lease became active in a series of public causes in the 1880s: first prohibition, through the WCTU; then woman suffrage. When she and her husband moved to Wichita, Kansas, she identified herself with the Irish-American community there, joining the labor movement and then the Farmers' Alliance and Populist Party.

During the 1890 Kansas campaign, in which Populists swept into state power, she became a nationally famous stump speaker. Between 1890 and 1896 she toured all over the country and became one of the decade's most prominent women. She was bitterly assailed in the Republican and Democratic press, accused of being a "virago" and "petticoated smut-mill." Some opponents changed her middle name from Elizabeth to Ellen, so they could call her "Yellin' Mary Ellen." Many people thought that women's place was in the home, not on the political stage, and Lease was a favorite target. She is undoubtedly one of the 'harpies' mentioned by William Allen White in his 1896 editorial, "Whats the Matter with Kansas?"

Lease is widely quoted as having told the farmers of Kansas--and, by implication, Populists generally--to "raise less corn and more hell." but the phrase was actually coined by Ralph Beaumont, a fellow labor lecturer. Lease later observed that she let the comment stand, when it was attributed to her, because she thought it was 'a right good piece of advice.'

Lease was a bitter opponent of Populist "fusion" with Democrats. She spent much of the 1890s fighting fusion arrangements in Kansas. At the 1896 Populist convention she and other anti-fusionists, like Tom Watson and Ignatius Donnelly, Minnesota editor of The Representative, lost, and the party nominated William Jennings Bryan. Lease reluctantly went out on the stump for Bryan, to her later regret. She spent much of the campaign in Minnesota, through Donnelly's arrangements. In a dramatic speech at Cooper Union in New York, Lease declared her support for socialism. Though endorsing Bryan, she also gave interviews in which she argued that the Democrats' Chicago platform was only a cosmetic fix for the nation's ills.

Soon after 1896, Lease divorced her husband and moved to New York City with her four children. She worked as a lawyer and lecturer for many years. When Eugene Debs ran for president in 1908, Lease spoke on his behalf; by 1912 she became an admirer of Theodore Roosevelt and supported his bid to recapture the presidency, under the banner of the "Bull Moose" Progressive Party. Before she died, Lease witnessed the passage of many of her cherished goals: prohibition, woman suffrage, and several planks of the long-defunct Populist platform--including direct election of Senators and more federal regulation of corporations and railroads. These reforms had been picked up by the Progressive, Republican, and Democratic leaders, but Lease counted them as part of the Populist legacy.


The best published source on Lease is Dorothy Rose Blumberg, "Mary Elizabeth Lease, Populist Orator: A Profile," Kansas History 1 (1978): 3-15.

See also the books on Populism and women in politics by Gene Clanton, Michael Goldberg, and others on the bibliography page.

Mrs. Lease was educated a Catholic, but thought herself out of that communion, and is now not over-weighted with reverence for the clergy of any sect. She not infrequently rouses their ire by her stinging taunts as to their divergence from the path marked out by their professed Master, whose first concern was for the poor and needy....

In the campaign of 1890 she made speeches so full of fiery eloquence, of righteous wrath, and fierce denunciation of the oppressors, that she became the delight of the people of the new party and the detestation of the followers of the old. Seldom, if ever, was a woman so vilified and so misrepresented by malignant newspaper attacks. A woman of other quality would have sunk under the avalanche. She was quite competent to cope with all that was visited upon her. Indeed, the abuse did her much service. The people but loved her the more for the enemies she made....
Her chiefest distinguishing gift is her powerful voice; deep and resonant, its effect is startling and controlling. Her speeches are philippics. She hurls sentences as Jove hurled thunderbolts.
--Annie L. Diggs, "The Women in the Alliance Movement," Arena, July 1892

[Mary Lease]

Mrs. Lease's Appointments.
... The persons named as correspondents are expected to see to it, that a hall is secured and the meeting thoroughly advertised.

June 1, Preston [Minnesota]; correspondent, Thomas J. Meighen
June 2, Austin; TJM
June 3, Dodge Center; Hon. J. I. Verilya
June 5, St. Charles; Charles Blair
June 6, Chatfield; Timothy Halloran
June 9, Madison Lake; William M. Smith
June 10, New Ulm; William F. Runck
June 12, Mapleton, W. G. Daly
June 16, Fairmont, Hon. T. S. Fisk
June 18, Pipestone; F. M. Payne
June 19, Marshall; Spurgeon O'Dell
June 20, Mineota; C. M. Gislason
June 22, Tracy; O. F. Norwood
June 23, Lake Crystal; H. Humphrey
June 25, Adrian; J. T. McKnight
June 26, Luverne.
June 29, Slayton; Peter Peterson.
The Representative, 3 June

Mrs. Lease, on June 3, made a grand speech of two and a half hours, before an immense crowd at Dodge Center. The next night she addressed an extemproized meeting at Kasson.... Steps should be taken to keep her in [Minnesota] until election day, if it is possible.
She makes hundreds of votes wherever she speaks. The only danger is of break-down. She is over-zealous and forgets herself in her earnestness. Our friends must not let her work herself to death. See that she is well entertained and has plenty of rest between speeches.
Ignatius Donnelly, The Representative, 10 June

One need talk with Mrs. Lease only ten minutes to observe certain things: She is self-confident, and also thoroughly impressed with herself. She enjoys the fire of hot opposition. She "poses" even in private conversation.... Mrs. Lease is earnest, absolutely fearless, but uppermost in all her thoughts and deeds seems to be Mrs. Lease, and after that her cause....
When she makes a statement that needs backing she can give, off-hand, the section, clause, paragraph, and line of the Constitution; she can quote by the paragraph from this or that Supreme Court decision; she can repeat what this or that man said in the United States Senate thirty, forty, fifty years ago.... If you have only a few fundamental and even correct notions about the gold side of this money queson--all that is necessary for any ordinary and intelligent man to have--you had better keep away from Mrs. Lease, for she will throw you by a simple twist of her thumb--or perhaps I had better say twist of her tongue.
--Franklin Matthews, Leslie's Weekly, 10 September

It does not necessarily follow because Mrs. Lease somewhat unsexed herself by her indulgence in turbulent and inflammatory discourse at Cooper Union that all women are unfitted by Nature to participate in the excitement of political contests or to have a voice in the calm and deliberate discussions which ought always to attend upon the settlement of grave and serious governmental problems. We might as well say that the similarly wild and reckless outgivings of the Tillmans and Altgelds demonstrated the unfitness of the sterner sex for self-government. But there is this to be said, of which there can be no denial, that Mrs. Lease upon the political platform or stump, uttering invectives more than masculine, and appealing to the brutal passions of the mob rather than to the calm sense of reasoning men and women, must be treated the same as any other mob leader, male or female. She cannot shelter herself behind her sex while appealing to bloodthirsty passions and inciting lawless riot.

Mrs. Lease is representative of the party--we will not call it Democratic--which presents Mr. Bryan as a candidate.... In the principles she avows, and the policies she advocates, in the coarse vigor of her speech and the startling aggressiveness of her manner, she is in the highest degree the best and truest exponent of the Bryan platform and party. In the extravagance of her language, the wantonness and recklessness with which she appealed to class hatred, pointing out by name as the proper objects of popular vengeance good and honorable citizens whose only offence is the possession of property accumulated honestly under the laws, she may have seemed to be in advance of her party. But only a step; just enough to bring out with clearness and distinctness the real spirit and purpose of the revolutionists and Anarchists who are bent on the destruction of public credit and the overthrow of social order. A step behind this raging virago, foaming with fury and blazing with wrath, is the wild mob of levellers eager for the general distribution of spoils; behind them the Terror, with its bloody bacchanals and merciless savagery. --New York Tribune, August 13, 1896


© 2000, Rebecca Edwards, Vassar College