Lease, Mary Elizabeth

views updated Jun 11 2018

Mary Elizabeth Lease

Born September 11, 1853 (Ridgway, Pennsylvania)

Died October 29, 1933 (Callicoon, New York)


Public speaker

Mary Elizabeth Lease was a tough, outspoken woman in an era when women were expected to be subordinate and avoid conflict with men. Lease, however, was angry at the wrongs she saw in the world and refused to keep silent no matter how society perceived her. She gained national recognition during the crusade for reform in the 1890s due mainly to her powerful oratorical (speech-making) skills. With a quick mind, a powerful voice, a way with words, and a strong dislike for rich American industrialists, she stirred both anger and hope in farmers who were struggling to pay bills and feed their families. In hundreds of speeches made in just a few years she rallied crowds to fight for reform against the wealthy financial backers and industrialists.

"The great common people of this country are slaves, and monopoly is the master."

Difficult beginnings

Lease was born in Ridgway, Pennsylvania, in 1853. Her parents were immigrants from Ireland, forced to flee their native land because her father faced a possible death sentence for rebelling against the ruling English. Lease's young life was overwhelmed by poverty and loss. Two of her brothers and her father died in battle against the Confederacy during the American Civil War (1861-65; a war between the Union [the North], who were opposed to slavery, and the Confederacy [the South], who were in favor of slavery). Lease developed a bitter hatred for the Confederacy—and consequently the Democratic Party to which many Southerners later belonged—that lasted for the rest of her life.

After the war Lease completed her schooling at a Catholic girls' school in Allegany, New York, with the aid of neighbors. She initially taught in New York but moved to Kansas to teach around 1870. There she met and married a druggist's clerk, Charles L. Lease, in 1873. They established a small farm and lived contentedly on it for a couple of years, but, because of an economic downturn that had begun in 1873, prices for crops fell sharply and their farm eventually failed. The young couple lost everything. They moved to Texas, where two of their children died in infancy. The economic situation had not improved and they eventually failed at farming once again. Like many at that time, Lease blamed her losses on the railroad companies, which charged farmers higher rates than they charged Eastern businessmen. Also to blame, according to Lease, were the lenders who charged high interest rates (a percentage of the sum borrowed) for loans to farmers. When lack of profits made it impossible for farmers to pay back their loans, it often led to the banks taking their land as repayment. In 1883 the Leases moved to Wichita, Kansas, and settled there with their four surviving children.

Lease's first speeches

In Kansas Lease began studying law while also becoming active in several causes: labor issues, prohibition, women's suffrage (right to vote), and eventually the situation of the farmers. On St. Patrick's Day, 1885, she delivered her first public speech, "Ireland and Irishmen," in defense of the Irish struggle for independence from England. Lease's speech impressed all who attended, enabling her to find work as a paid lecturer, which helped to pay her family's bills. In the same year Lease was admitted as a lawyer to the Wichita bar. She opened a law office but, for reasons that are not clear to historians, she never actively practiced law. In 1886 she founded and became president of the Hypatia Club, an organization of women who aimed to improve themselves intellectually. The club was still in existence in the early twenty-first century.

In 1887 Lease became a lecturer for the Farmers' Alliance, a branch of loosely organized societies that sought to bring farmers together to promote their interests, such as calling for government regulation or ownership of the railroads, monetary reform that would help farmers, and the elimination of the national banks. Lease also briefly worked as an associate editor for a reform newspaper, the Wichita Journal. In 1888 farmers and laborers tried to form a union, the Union Labor Party, to represent both interest groups. This was a cause that Lease took up with great enthusiasm. She gave a stirring speech at the state convention of the new party in Wichita. Shortly after, she became a candidate for a county office. Although she narrowly lost her campaign, her candidacy in itself was impressive in a time when women were not even eligible to vote.

A speaker for the Populists

The Union Labor Party soon failed due to lack of interest, and the members of the Farmers Alliance and labor groups went on to form a new third political party, the People's Party of America, also known as the Populists. The Farmers' Alliance had always aimed to influence Democrats and Republicans to promote legislation beneficial to farm interests, but by 1890 many of its members felt this was useless. They believed the two major parties were ignoring their interests because they were strongly attached to the wealthy and powerful northeastern industries. Kansans were at the forefront of the efforts to create the third political party, and thus the Populist Party was founded in Topeka, Kansas, in 1890. Lease eagerly went to work as a stump speaker (someone who traveled to other towns and regions to make public addresses for a political candidate) for the party. She was tireless in her work, making hundreds of speeches in Kansas and across the nation.

In 1889 Lease took an active role in the successful campaign to unseat U.S. senator John J. Ingalls (1873-1891), a Kansas Republican. She reportedly made over 160 speeches during the 1890 election. She was often mistakenly called Mary Ellen, and because her speeches were so full of anger and contempt for the Republican candidate, her enemies dubbed her "Mary Yellin'." Her speeches also fiercely attacked the nation's powerful industrialists, the federal government, and the upper classes. "Wall Street owns the country," she proclaimed in an 1890 speech, as quoted in William E. Connelly's A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans. "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 [the exclusive right to produce or sell a product] is the master." She went on to call Ingalls "the errand boy of Wall Street, the silver-tongued champion of special privilege, [and] a dishonest, soulless, shameless charlatan [fraud]." Many believed Ingalls' loss was due to Lease's campaign against him.

William Jennings Bryan and the Election of 1896

William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) was known as the "Great Commoner" for his representation of the poor, the working class, and the farmers in his impassioned speeches and political campaigns. Bryan was born and raised in Illinois, where he practiced law for a few years. In 1887 he moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he ran for Congress in 1890. Bryan won his Congressional seat as a Democrat in a strongly Republican district, which was probably an early indication of his oratorical (speech-making) skills.

One of the issues that Bryan championed was free silver. In 1893 the United States experienced a depression, or a period of drastic decline in the economy. Farm failures were common. Many farmers became advocates of free silver, demanding that the government issue new dollars backed by silver as opposed to paper money being backed only by gold. Since gold was used as the standard value for the dollar, the dollar could be redeemed for a certain amount of gold and the nation had to have gold reserves that could cover the supply of money. Those who advocated free silver believed using silver as well as gold to back the currency would increase the money supply and lead to inflation (a rise in the amount of money in circulation in relation to a smaller amount of available goods and products, leading to a rise in prices). Higher prices for their crops due to inflation would benefit the farmers, particularly in the effect it would have on loans they had borrowed when money was worth less. Inflation would hurt the banks and insurance companies that had loaned them money because the money they collected on the debts was not worth as much as it was when it was borrowed. During his first term in the House of Representatives, Bryan gave a masterful three-hour speech in defense of the free silver cause. He claimed lawmakers had to decide between wealthy industrialists and the downtrodden masses. Bryan earned national fame for his speech-making, but in 1894, after two terms in office, he failed in a bid to become a U.S. senator. Nevertheless, he continued to make speeches in favor of the free silver cause.

At the age of thirty-six, Bryan impressed the audience at the 1896 Democratic presidential convention in Chicago with a famous address that came to be known as the "Cross of Gold" speech. Delivering a carefully planned and rehearsed text as if it were a spontaneous outpouring, he declared that farms could survive without the cities, but cities could not survive without farms. He called on his supporters to defy big business with its gold standard, or the backing of currency with gold. "Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the laboring interests and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold."

The next day Bryan was nominated as the presidential candidate of both the Democratic Party and the Populist Party, and he ran under both parties. He campaigned against Republican candidate William McKinley (1843-1901; served 1897-1901). Bryan came very close to winning the election. He captured the vote of many rural Americans with his wonderful voice and exciting delivery, despite what many historians termed an overly dramatic and simplistic platform. Ultimately the Democrats failed to persuade eastern workers to support the free silver cause. Industrialists convinced their employees that Bryan was a radical, even a revolutionary, and McKinley narrowly won the election. McKinley took the presidency, and the Populist movement and Bryan's influence in the nation were largely over.

Approval and criticism

Lease quickly became one of the most famous figures of the Populist movement. Her speeches were so rousing she was said to have enlisted hundreds of new Populist Party members with each one she gave. She was an imposing figure at six feet tall, and observers noted that her voice had an unusually powerful and appealing quality. Lease had great natural charm and was able to translate the frustrations and emotions of her audiences into words. The farmers and labor unions loved her, but the press and the major party politicians criticized her mercilessly. Most went far beyond disagreeing with what she was saying, attacking her looks, her self-confidence, and her "unwomanly" argumentative behavior. Lease did not respond well to the personal attacks. She once claimed that the major party politicians were out to get her and had tried to poison her lemonade three times.

The Populists gained strength, and in 1892 they nominated General James B. Weaver (1833-1912) of Iowa as the party's presidential candidate. Lease campaigned heavily in the South and West for Weaver. Though he did not win the election, Weaver won more than one million popular votes and claimed the majority vote in four states, a major accomplishment for a third-party candidate. In 1893 the Populists gained control of the Kansas state government when Populist governor Lorenzo Lewelling (1846-1900) was elected. Lease had become very well connected with those in power in the state, and many urged her to run for senator. She declined, instead accepting the governor's appointment as president of the State Board of Charities, the highest office held by a woman in Kansas at that time.

By 1893 some members of the Populist Party were looking into a possible merger of their party with the Democrats, whom Lease still hated as it was the party to which most of the former Confederates belonged. When it became clear that Governor Lewelling was in favor of the merger, Lease began criticizing him in public. Lewelling had her removed from the board just months after her appointment, and she reacted by launching an attack on him in the newspapers. She took her case all the way to the Kansas Supreme Court, which ruled in her favor, saying that Lewelling had not had the authority to dismiss her from the board.

The end of a movement and a career

The Populist Party merged with the Democrats for the 1896 presidential elections, with young orator William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) as the candidate for both parties running against Republican candidate William McKinley (1843-1901; served 1897-1901). The Populists supported Bryan by calling for struggling working-class Americans to vote for him in order to overthrow the party serving the interests of the powerful and wealthy industrialists. Despite her objections to the merger, Lease joined in the Bryan campaign. Although it was a very close race, Bryan lost, signaling the end of the Populist movement.

Lease left her husband in Kansas and moved with her children to New York City in 1897. There she filed for a divorce, which was complete in 1902. In her new home she earned her living as a political writer for the New York World. Though she continued to serve as a public lecturer for several causes, particularly women's suffrage, Prohibition (the forbidding of alcoholic beverages), and birth control, she was no longer the celebrity she was during the Populist campaigns. She acknowledged in her old age that her anger was gone, though not her desire to reform the wrongs done to the country's women, workers, and farmers. In 1931 Lease bought a farm in New York State, running it with hired labor. She died there on October 29, 1933.

Lease published one book in her lifetime, The Problem of Civilization Solved (1895). Most academics agreed that it was a mixture of poorly conceived ideas, promoting racism and the separation of cultures. The publication caused historians to regard Lease with less respect, but she was still remembered for her courage in daring to stand up to the strongest forces of a male-dominated society and provide a loud and clear voice for the interests of the farmers and the working poor.

For More Information


Clanton, Gene. Populism: The Humane Preference in America, 1890-1900. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1991.

Stiller, Richard. Queen of Populists: The Story of Mary Elizabeth Lease. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1970.

Women Public Speakers in the United States, 1800-1925. Edited by Karlyn Kohrs Campbell. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993.


"Cheered Mary E. Lease." New York World (August 11, 1896). This article can also be found online at (accessed on July 7, 2005).

Web Sites

Connelly, William E. A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans, 2000. (accessed on July 7, 2005).

Lease, Mary Elizabeth

views updated May 23 2018


Mary Elizabeth Clyens Lease (18531933) was an activist, writer, and public speaker for many causes, including farmers' issues and women's suffrage. She was actively involved in the creation of the People's Party in Kansas. She gained national recognition during the Populist crusade for reform in the 1890s.

In 1853 Mary Clyens was born in Ridgeway, Pennsylvania to Irish immigrant parents. After she finished her education, she began teaching in rural schools in New York. In 1870 she moved to Kansas to teach and there she met and married a druggist's clerk, Charles L. Lease.

Lease and her husband tried twice to make a living from farming in Kansas, but were unsuccessful both times, blaming their misfortune on the railroads and loan companies. The couple moved to Texas for several years before returning to Wichita, Kansas in 1883. It was back in Kansas that Lease became involved in public life. On St Patrick's Day, 1885, she delivered her first public speech, "Ireland and Irishmen," on behalf of the Irish National League. In the same year Lease was admitted as a lawyer to the Wichita bar.

Lease later became involved in other political issues, particularly those that involved the farming community. In 1888 she spoke before the state convention of the Union Labor Party, a forerunner of the People's Party in Kansas She was the party's candidate for a county office long before women were even eligible to vote. In 1889 Lease became a Farmers' Alliance lecturer and briefly worked as an associate editor for a reform newspaper, the Wichita Journal.

In 1890 the People's Party in Kansas, commonly known as the Populist Party, was formed to fight for better conditions for farmers. There was much discontent among the agrarian community at that time because of declining farm prices and the accompanying declines in income. Since farmers blamed corrupt politicians for their plight, Lease and many agricultural laborers became disillusioned with traditional party politics and believed change would only come through a third party.

In the same year Lease took an active role in the successful campaign to unseat United States Senator John J. Ingalls (187391), a Kansas Republican. She reportedly made over 160 speeches during the 1890 election. She was often mistakenly called Mary Ellen, and her enemies dubbed her "Mary Yellin'." During a three-hour speech in Halstead, Kansas, Lease encouraged farmers to "raise less corn and more hell."

In 1892 Lease became involved in the creation of the People's Party of America. She campaigned heavily in the south and west for General James B. Weaver (18331912), the party's presidential candidate. In 1893, when the Populists gained control of the administration of Kansas, Lease was appointed president of the State Board of Charities, the highest office held by a woman in Kansas at that time.

By 1896 Lease broke with the Populists because the party was merging with the Democrats to support the presidential candidacy of William Jennings Bryan (18601925). She then joined the staff at Joseph Pulitzer's New York World as a political reporter. Lease moved to New York City and became a public lecturer for several causes, addressing women's suffrage, Prohibition, evolution, and birth control. She died on her farm in New York on October 29, 1933.

See also: William Jennings Bryan, Farmers' Alliance, Labor Movement, Labor Unionism, Populist Movement, Prohibition, Joseph Pulitzer, Women's Movement


Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs, ed. Women Public Speakers in the United States, 18001925. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993.

Hardy, Gayle J. American Women Civil Rights Activists: Biobibliographies of 68 Leaders, 18251992. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 1993.

Johnson, Gerald W. The Lunatic Fringe. Baltimore, MD: Lippincott, 1957.

La Forte, Robert S. Leaders of Reform: Progressive Republicans in Kansas, 19001916. Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1974.

Mayfield, Lydia. "Mary Ellen Lease or 'Yellin' Ellen, the Kansas Tornado." Texas Quarterly, Summer, 1975.

raise less corn and more hell.

mary lease, halstead, kansas, 1890

Mary Elizebeth Clyens Lease

views updated May 21 2018

Mary Elizebeth Clyens Lease

Mary Elizabeth Clyens Lease (1853-1933), American lecturer, writer, and politician, gained national fame during the Populist crusade for reform in the 1890s. She was a zealous agitator for equality and opportunity.

Mary Elizabeth Clyens was born in Pennsylvania of Irish parents. She was reared and educated in Allegany County, N.Y. The family moved to Kansas, probably in 1870, at which time Mary Elizabeth was in Osage Mission, Kans., teaching in a parochial school. She married Charles L. Lease, a pharmacist, in 1873. The couple soon moved to Texas, where three of their four children were born. Returning to Kansas in the early 1880s, the family settled in Wichita.

In 1885 Lease was admitted to the bar and entered public life speaking on behalf of the Irish National League with a flaming tirade on the subject of "Ireland and Irishmen." In 1888 she spoke before the state convention of the Union Labor party, a forerunner of the People's party in Kansas, and was the party's candidate for county office long before women were eligible to vote.

Lease was an effective campaigner for the candidates of the Farmers' Alliance—People's party during the 1890 election, making over 160 speeches. During the campaign she was often mistakenly called Mary Ellen, and her enemies dubbed her "Mary Yellin." During one 3-hour speech in Halstead, Kan., she reportedly remarked, "What you farmers need to do is raise less corn and more Hell."

Lease was active in the presidential campaign of 1892, accompanying Populist candidate James Baird Weaver on a disastrous tour of the South. In Minnesota and Nevada she made eight speeches a day. When the Populists gained control of the administration of Kansas, she was named president of the State Board of Charities in 1893. She feuded with the governor and was removed from office but was reinstated by the Kansas Supreme Court.

In 1896 Lease was a leader of the antifusion faction in the Populist party, which fought a merger with the Democrats, who supported the presidential candidacy of William Jennings Bryan. She lost the fight at the national convention but immediately joined the staff of the New York World to campaign against the Democratic candidate. Lease turned to writing articles and poetry for magazines and published a book, The Problem of Civilization Solved. She continued to champion reform—woman's suffrage, prohibition, evolution, and birth control.

A Republican, Lease bolted the party in 1912 to support Theodore Roosevelt's presidential campaign. She retired from public life in 1921. Ten years later she bought a farm in Sullivan County, N.Y., where she died in 1933.

Further Reading

There is no book-length biography of Mary Elizabeth Lease. Sketches of her life and anecdotes and quotations from her political speeches are found throughout the literature on the Populist crusade, beginning with John D. Hicks, The Populist Revolt (1931). A highly colored biography is in Gerald W. Johnson, The Lunatic Fringe (1957). □

About this article

Mary Elizabeth Lease

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic