Mary Elizabeth Clyens Lease was a well-known, powerful, and emotional orator for the People's Party. She has been credited with urging Kansas farmers to "raise less corn and more hell".
Born in Pennsylvania in 1853 to Irish parents, Lease was a teacher who settled with her husband Charles in Kingman County, Kansas. While staying at home raising four children, she used her "spare time" to study for the bar; in 1885 became one of a small handful of female attorneys in the state. Her career as an activist took off when she joined the Woman's Christian Temperance Union in the mid-1880s. She joined the Union Labor Party in 1888 and appeared at their state convention that year.
By 1890, she was fully on board with the People's Party, commonly known as the Populists. During that campaign year she gave more that 150 speeches, mostly in Kansas campaigning on behalf of William Alfred Peffer's bid for the US Senate. Lease was given much of the credit for Peffer's unseating of sitting Republican Senator John Ingalls.
She had great respect for the working people of the United States, particularly the farmers. She saw that "The West and South are bound and prostrate before the manufacturing East" and during the campaign of 1890 often stated "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."
Lease spent 1892 traveling with James B. Weaver, the People's Party nominee for President. Weaver came in third behind former Preisdent Grover Cleveland and incumbent President Benjamin Harrison, but the Populist cause found a new national voice in Mary Elizabeth Lease. She was known as the People's Joan of Arc, and the Republican William Allen White wrote that "she could recite the multiplication table and set a crowd hooting and harrahing at her will."
The People's Party was undone by its fusion with the Democrats. Both the Populist and the Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan for President in 1896 who promptly lost to William McKinley, the Cross of Gold speech notwithstanding. Lease was never happy with the Democrat-Populist fusion which she called a "compromise with evil", and she abandoned the party. She moved to New York and to no one's surprise became a Socialist. "Any person who honestly accepts the teachings of the Divine Master," she said in an interview in 1897, "must be a Socialist. In other words, socialism is the practice of christianity."
She died in Callicoon, New York in 1933.
Books by Gene Clanton:
Kansas Populism (1969)
Populism: The Humane Preference in America (1991)
Congressional Populism (1998)