Mary Elizabeth Lease

Mary Elizabeth Lease
Mary Elizabeth Lease

Mary Elizabeth Lease (1853–1933) was an American lecturer, writer, and political activist. She was an advocate of the suffrage movement as well as temperance but she was best known for her work with the Populist party. She was born to Irish immigrants Joseph P. and Mary Elizabeth (Murray) Clyens, in Ridgway, Pennsylvania. In 1895, she wrote The Problem of Civilization Solved, and in 1896, she moved to New York City where she edited the democratic newspaper, World. In addition, she worked as an editor for the National Encyclopedia of American Biography. Mary Elizabeth Lease was also known as Mary Ellen Lease. She was called "Queen Mary" (after the British Queen consort, Mary of Teck), "Mother Lease" by her supporters and "Mary Yellin" by her enemies. Lease died in Callicoon, New York.


Early life

At the age of twenty she moved to Kansas to teach school in Osage Mission (St. Paul, Kansas), and three years later she married Charles L. Lease, a local pharmacist. After unsuccessful farming ventures in Kingman County and in Texas, the Leases and their four children moved to Wichita, Kansas, where she took a leading role in civic and social activities.

Political career

In 1888, she began to work for the Union Labor Party and gave a speech at their state convention. From there she became involved in the movement that would become the Populist Party. She believed that big business had made the people of America into "wage slaves", declaring, "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."[1] Although she is widely believed to have exhorted Kansas farmers to "raise less corn and more hell", she later said that the admonition had been invented by reporters. Lease decided to let the quote stand because she thought "it was a right good bit of advice."[2]

By 1890, her involvement in the growing revolt of Kansas farmers against high mortgage interest and railroad rates had placed her in the forefront of the People's (Populist) Party. She was recognized as being a powerful orator who was adept at expressing the discontent of the people. Emporia editor William Allen White, who did not share her political views, wrote on one occasion that "she could recite the multiplication table and set a crowd hooting and harrahing at her will."[3] However, not many agreed that she was a rational or even relevant orator. Reporters had described her as "...untrained, and while displaying plenty of a certain sort of power, is illogical, lacks sequence and scatters like a 10-gauge gun." [4] Lease was often heavily criticized. She was accused of being overly vulgar and foulmouthed. She was described by a Republican editor as "the petti-coated smut-mill [...] Her venomous tongue is the only thing marketable about the old harpy, and we suppose she is justified in selling it where it commends the highest price.".[5] She stumped all over Kansas, as well as the Far West and the South, making more than 160 speeches for the cause.

Split with Populists

Historian Gene Clanton described Mary Elizabeth Lease's political career as being defined by three characteristics; an exaggerated sense of self-importance, an intense hatred for the democrats and a shallow understanding of the actual problems plaguing Kansas.[6] Lease began drifting away from the Populist party after Populist Governor Lewellin was elected into office. By November 1893 she was reported to have openly criticized the Lewelling administration only to deny it in an interview several days later.[7] Yet it would seem that the first interview reflected her true feelings. By December of that same year Lewelling attempted to have her removed from the board of charities, a position which he had appointed her to originally. Yet she claimed that the attempt to have her removed stemmed from her determination to have women's suffrage and temperance as her main focus at the Populist party's next state convention. Her public outrage at the attempt to remove her prompted even other Populist Partys to distance themselves from her. Governor Lewelling's secretary Osborn was quoted saying "I am no longer surprised at anything she says. The woman is crazy.".[8] By 1896 Lease had become alienated from the Populist Party and historian Gene Clanton cites her split with the Populist party as being a major contributor to the Populist party's defeat in 1894.[9]

Yet this was not the end of her political career. She once again came into the spotlight when Theodore Roosevelt was elected into office. Lease felt that her work and efforts with the Populist party had finally been rewarded: "In these later years I have seen, with gratification, that my work in the good old Populist days was not in vain. The Progressive party has adopted our platform, clause for clause, plank by plank."[10]

End of Life

She divorced her husband in 1902 and spent the rest of her life with one or another of her children in the East until her death in 1933.

Literary scholar Brian Attebery claimed Mary Elizabeth Lease to have been the model for Dorothy in L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.[11]


  1. ^ "Wall Street Owns The Country", speech, circa 1890
  2. ^ A Common Humanity: Kansas Populism and the Battle for Justice and Equality, 1854-1903, by O. Gene Clanton
  3. ^ "Mary Elizabeth Lease", Kansas State Historical Society
  4. ^ Clanton, O.Gene: "Kansas Populism, ideas and men", page 75. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 1969.
  5. ^ Clanton O.Gene: "Kansas Populism, ideas and men", page 76. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 1969.
  6. ^ "Kansas Populism, ideas and men", page 146. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 1969
  7. ^ Clanton O.Gene: "Kansas Populism, ideas and men", page 142. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 1969
  8. ^ Clanton O.Gene: "Kansas Populism, ideas and men", page 144. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 1969
  9. ^ Clanton O.Gene: "Kansas Populism, ideas and men", page 146. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 1969
  10. ^ Hicks, John D.: "The Populist Revolt, A History of the Farmers' Alliance and the People's Party", page 421. The University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1931.
  11. ^ Brian Attebery. The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: From Irving to Le Guin (Bloomington, 1980), 86-87.

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