Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


In the heyday of the Populist Party, 1890–96, Mary Lease was one of the most prominent women in America, celebrated as the "Kansas Joan of Arc." She was born on September 11, 1853, in Ridgway, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Irish immigrants. Her father died as a Union prisoner of war, a calamity that plunged the family into poverty. In 1870 his widow sent twenty-year-old Mary to teach at Osage Mission, Kansas, where she married local pharmacist Charles Lease in 1873. The couple lost everything in the Panic of 1873 and moved to Denison, Texas. While her husband shifted from job to job, Lease took in washing and bore six children, two of whom died in infancy. She also joined the temperance movement and discovered her talent as an orator.

In the 1880s the family moved to Wichita, where Lease became a Knights of Labor organizer and women's suffrage advocate, as well as one of the first women to pass the Kansas bar. When the Populist Party formed in 1890, it seemed poised to address a broad range of Lease's concerns, and she plunged into the campaign. Her speeches were famously fiery, though she did not–as myth has it–urge farmers to "raise less corn and more hell."

Lease's agenda did not match those of many other Populist leaders. Denouncing those who cooperated with Democrats, she also offended anti-imperialists with her 1895 book, The Problem of Civilization Solved, advocating U.S. colonization of Latin America. In 1896 Lease declared herself a socialist but stumped reluctantly for William Jennings Bryan. After Bryan's defeat, Lease divorced her husband and moved with her children to New York, where she worked as a lawyer and lecturer until her death on October 30, 1933.

Though Lease repudiated the Populists, she left an enduring legacy from her years in the Plains. According to reports from an 1890 convention, it was she who gave the People's Party its name. She inspired novelist Hamlin Garland to fictionalize her in A Spoil of Office (1893). The first woman to be appointed a state superintendent of charities (by a Populist governor in Kansas), she blended with passion the advocacy of women's rights, overseas expansion, and domestic economic reform.

See also POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT: Populists (People's Party).

Rebecca Edwards Vassar College

Blumberg, Dorothy Rose. "Mary Elizabeth Lease, Populist Orator: A Profile." Kansas History 1 (1978): 3-15.

Clanton, O. Gene. "Intolerant Populist? The Disaffection of Mary Elizabeth Lease." Kansas Historical Quarterly 34 (1968): 189-200.

Previous: Ku Klux Klan | Contents | Next: Malcolm X

XML: egp.pd.032.xml