The ‘People’s Joan of Arc’

Mary Elizabeth Lease, Gendered Politics and Populist Party Politics in Gilded-Age America

by Brooke Speer Orr (Author)
©2014 Monographs 316 Pages
Series: American University Studies , Volume 14


The ‘People’s Joan of Arc’: Mary Elizabeth Lease, Gendered Politics and Populist Party Politics in Gilded-Age America is the first comprehensive biography tracing the captivating life of renowned activist Mary Elizabeth Lease. While Lease is most remembered in American history textbooks as the radical leader of the Populist Party who directed desperate farmers «to raise less corn and more hell», her influence and involvement in the late-nineteenth-century women’s suffrage movement and early-twentieth-century feminist movement place her on par with luminaries such as Susan B. Anthony. Lease’s story stretches from the American Civil War to the Great Depression and particularly illustrates how gender conventions and the related complexities of class and ethnic identity have historically shaped American politics. The diverse suits Lease wore, including housewife, teacher, lawyer, women’s rights activist, temperance advocate, Populist Party orator, Knights of Labor activist, Irish Nationalist, Socialist, Progressive reformer, Republican Party supporter, and «Bull Moose» campaign worker, reflect and highlight the factors fueling America’s reform impulse in the decades framing the turn of the twentieth century and likewise make her a fascinating historical character. Lease’s political opponents accused her of raising too much «hell», while her supporters praised her for translating their sense of societal and economic disempowerment into concrete, proactive political actions. Mary Elizabeth Lease was a heroine to her supporters and a dangerous, unfeminine demagogue to her opponents. Either way, she was unquestionably one of the most captivating figures of her time.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Chapter 1: Introduction
  • Chapter 2: Mary Elizabeth Clyens Lease: Origins of a Radical, 1853–1888
  • Chapter 3: Mary Lease, Annie Diggs, and the Rise of Radical Agrarian Politics in the Late 1880s–Early 1890s
  • Chapter 4: To “Raise Less Corn and More Hell,” Mary Lease and Populist Politics in the Early 1890s
  • Chapter 5: Mary Lease and the Women’s Rights Movement, Party Politics, and Agrarian Radicalism, 1892–1894
  • Chapter 6: Mary Lease, Organized Labor, Socialism and ‘Civilization,’ and the Evolution of Populist Party Politics, 1894–1895
  • Chapter 7: Mary Lease and the Politics of Silver, Gold, and Nationalism, 1896–1900
  • Chapter 8: Mary Lease, Urban Reform, and Republican Politics; A Reformer’s Transition from Populism to Progressivism, 1896–1904
  • Chapter 9: Mary Lease and the Progressive Movement in America, 1900–1920
  • Chapter 10: Mary Elizabeth Lease and the Legacy of Reform, 1921–1933
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Kansas State Historical Society (Topeka, Kansas)
  • Library of Congress (Washington, DC)
  • National Archives (Washington, DC)
  • New York Public Library (New York, New York)
  • New York State Department of Health
  • Topeka Public Library (Topeka, Kansas)
  • Index

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Chapter 1


Mary Elizabeth Lease is typically referred to in contemporary American history textbooks as a radical leader of the People’s (or Populist) Party who directed desperate Midwestern farmers “to raise less corn and more hell,” thus symbolically launching the fervent agrarian revolt stemming from the late-nineteenth-century agricultural depression. Although thorough research demonstrates that the oft-quoted phrase was a partisan newspaper embellishment, Populists and anti-Populists of her time associated the phrase with Mary Lease helping to solidify her place within America’s radical history narrative.1 She was affectionately dubbed the “People’s Joan of Arc,” the “female Old Hickory,” “Our Queen Mary,” or simply the “heroine” by agrarian, labor, and women’s rights supporters during the late nineteenth century.2 While supporters lauded her as “the modern Joan of Arc,” opponents ridiculed such adulation. “Mrs. Lease, outside of her own country, is honored by being called ‘Joan of Arc.’ There is a difference between the two, however. Mrs. Lease burns the steak instead of being burned at it.”3

In her lifetime Lease’s activist roles moved well beyond those associated with the briefly influential third-party Populist politics of the Gilded Age, a time of intense class conflict in America as the nation adjusted to the wide-ranging and often chaotic changes associated with the processes and consequences of a modernizing capitalist society. Though Lease played a key role in bringing about the electoral successes enjoyed by the Populists in the 1890s, her contributions to the nation’s radical tradition expanded beyond the agrarian revolt. The current historiography recalls Lease’s celebrated Populist Party speeches, but generally does not address her varied and numerous non-Populist activities both before and after the 1890s’ agrarian revolt. Lease was also a teacher, homemaker, journalist, women’s club member, women’s rights activist, temperance supporter, practicing lawyer, Union Labor Party member, Knights of Labor activist, Irish Nationalist, socialist, Henry George reform advocate, Catholic Church member, Republican Party supporter and political aid, “Bull Moose” campaign worker, and Progressive reformer. Lease apparently recognized the diverse nature of her own career as an “advocate” or cause joiner when she explained in an interview toward the end of ← 1 | 2 → her life that she used her “energy . . . to advocate the cause of the underdog.”4 One commentator insisted that Lease seeks reform “in everything” and “with a big R.”5 Despite her many endeavors, Lease’s contribution to the 1890’s Populist movement remains her most celebrated, influential, and well-recorded role.

Mary Lease’s Populist Party story particularly illustrates how gender conventions and the related complexities of class and ethnic identity shaped Gilded-Age American politics. An investigation of how and why Lease moved into overtly public activities at a time when women’s access to public political realms was severely limited reveals how women’s status was changing during this dynamic period. Lease’s political success and national fame developed in part because she quickly learned how to manipulate American political culture and use traditional male party-politicking styles to assume a public platform. Opponents attacked Lease’s presumed gender-role deviance by portraying her as a man, as physically masculine, as an unfit mother, and as a general threat to the social order. Lease’s supporters extolled her reputed masculine traits while simultaneously linking her political work with female purity, moral virtue, maternalism, and social uplift.

Opponents’ comments equating her behavior with manliness implied that Lease violated social norms and likewise insinuated that her supporters were tainted, or at least politically misled, by heeding the council of a deviant and degraded female. Lease and her supporters freely oscillated between associating her political work with socially prescribed masculine, aggressive behavior and with feminine domestic virtue, suggesting that gendered political discourse was somewhat fluid as Gilded Age society broke down Victorian gender-role hegemony. Lease utilized and in fact exploited feminine and masculine sex-role ideals to justify her Populist Party activities, to defend herself against opponents’ attacks, and to champion particular political candidates. Just as effectively, Lease’s opponents ridiculed her political work with derisive gendered language. Adversaries’ discourse rooted in gendered stereotyping was widely understood and appealed to many, even though these anti-Populists probably most feared her class-conscious calls for a people’s revolt. Speaking of Lease, her Populist contemporary Annie Diggs wrote that “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.”6

In a period when many public officials and private citizens agreed that women’s disenfranchisement and political marginalization were simply an “accident of gender,” Mary Lease’s political activities incited much public criticism for moving beyond accepted gender boundaries. One Republican newspaper chastised Lease’s party’s “monopoly of the women speakers,” informing readers that the Republican Party was more relevant than the Populists because “time spent by the ← 2 | 3 → women speakers is wasted.” As a woman defying the “cult of true womanhood,” Lease routinely confronted gender-specific verbal attacks that lacked any relevance to the reforms she proposed. Critics of Populism ridiculed Lease’s apparent challenge to female domesticity and submissiveness. These opponents proclaimed, for instance, that Lease’s “ambitious and aggressive” public lecturing brought about her acute rheumatism, which could have been avoided if she had properly kept to “housekeeping.”7 Another partisan newspaper wondered what Lease or the “Colonel” could possibly know about “What Constitutes a Lovely Woman,” which was quoting an article title that she apparently wrote for the Ladies’ Home Journal, since she herself lacked the attributes of “a lovely woman.”8

In stark contrast to Lease’s confrontational demeanor, Victorian social critics and advice manuals encouraged female passivity. As one popular nineteenth-century social critic named John Young explained, women “should cultivate moral sense,” while “a lady walks quietly through the streets, seeing and hearing nothing that she ought not to see and hear, recognizing acquaintances with a courteous bow, and friends with words of greetings. She is always unobtrusive, never talks loudly, or laughs boisterously, or does anything to attract attention of the passers-by.” Lease, however, “manifests her disposition to annihilate anyone who dares to oppose her,” declared an adversary attempting to demonstrate that her confrontational demeanor contrasted starkly with social norms and advice manuals encouraging female passivity. With no equally public and vocal female counterpart in the Kansas Republican and Democratic parties, anti-Populists could freely link Lease’s public activism to the defilement of “true womanhood” with little chance of retribution.9 One such partisan newspaper insinuated that Lease was atypical for a woman, one without peers, identifying her as the “Peerless Princess.”10

Mary Lease certainly did appear to violate John Young’s ideal of the perfected or model female as her contemporaries testified that she maintained a loud and boisterous voice, and her opponents accused her of disregarding other conventional standards of female behavior. Anti-Populists easily linked Mary Lease’s public activism to the defilement of “true womanhood” and used her speeches as evidence that Populism threatened the traditional social order. The viciousness of some of these attacks suggested that opponents probably feared her strength in galvanizing Populist Party constituents, so they employed popularly understood gendered discourse to counter her influence and stymie Populists’ political successes. The gendered discourse employed by Lease along with her opponents and supporters alike has been echoed in modern American political rhetoric, ranging from New Dealers’ distinctly gendered social welfare policies to twenty-first-century Tea Partiers’ gendered calls for domestic ‘protection.’ Opponents of Populism commonly turned to several gendered themes when attacking Lease and her party, namely, Lease’s apparent neglect of her domestic duties, her manly attributes, her dress and physical appearance, her gender-role deviance within her family, and her ← 3 | 4 → demasculinized husband. Lease responded to such criticisms by upholding the sanctity of motherhood, equating Populist reforms and women’s rights with social uplift, and publicizing the Populist Party as the protector of the “true” family ideal. Both opponents and supporters of the agrarian revolt utilized the discourse of gender to explain Lease’s public behavior and to define and delineate the appropriate boundaries of women’s public and private activities.11

While social mores continued to encourage women to conform to the “cult of domesticity” even after the Civil War, some women, Mary Lease among them, were nonetheless becoming more politically active as the nineteenth century progressed.12 From her early teenage years to her death during the Great Depression, Lease fervently crusaded for women’s rights, protesting laws and social norms that institutionalized women’s second-class status. Lease and other public women did not wholly reject the domestic ideology, but they did transform it for their own personal and political purposes. Accompanying the separate-spheres ideology was the somewhat paradoxical notion of female civic duty. Lease used the concepts of female civic duty and women’s presumed “moral authority” to enter the public sphere, but once there she adopted traditionally masculine political styles such as campaigning, debating, orating, running for office, and verbally lambasting her political opponents in public venues.13 In adjusting ideas regarding female moral authority to male partisan politicking, Lease and other politically active women defied the notion of women’s second-class citizenship and challenged long-standing notions concerning women’s and men’s public versus private spheres. As one interviewer noted, Lease “is the first woman in American politics” because, in contrast, “the Anthonys and Willards and the Stantons have only tried to annex woman’s world to politics,” whereas “Lease is mixing up with man politics and acting like a woman.”14 Her experiences likewise reveal how and why third parties generally offered women greater opportunities to assume leadership roles than did the Republican and Democratic parties.

Mary Lease cannot be neatly classified as a “new woman” feminist, meaning the women’s rights model of the independent, educated, middle-class woman publicly lobbying for legal and sexual equality; seeking self-fulfillment; and shunning assumptions of female dependence, morality, and religiously defined gender roles. As a daughter of Catholic immigrants reared within a working-poor family who lived through the trials of the American Civil War, Lease’s experiences and worldview were naturally quite different from those of the typically younger, middle-class, native-born, bourgeois “new” American women. Lease’s feminism, moreover, differed from that of many of her middle-class suffragist contemporaries because it was intertwined with her militant discussions of class warfare, wealth inequality, and farmer and labor economic exploitation. Her work with both the labor movement and economically desperate farmers infused her women’s rights ideas with a certain radical class consciousness that set her language and behaviors ← 4 | 5 → apart from her middle-class contemporaries. Lease’s suffrage speeches in fact often focused upon women’s economic empowerment, not simply their domestic contributions, as she demanded that women earn a fair living wage in order to advance their independence. Although in some speeches she justified her calls for women’s equality with the popular moral-authority argument commonly used by her contemporaries, Lease more often than not simply stated that women were equal to men and should be treated as such in all areas of society.15 Throughout her lifetime Lease campaigned for women’s political, social, legal, and economic equality, and she used her Irish Nationalist, labor movement, Populist, and Progressive pulpits for spreading her women’s rights agenda. She was frankly committed to “women’s rights and the political equality of the sexes,” and considered unconditional and universal women’s suffrage as only one of many steps toward achieving gender equality.16 Studying her women’s rights work, moreover, exposes the complex nature of the women’s movement, its goals, its internal conflicts, its successes, and its failures.

Certainly other reform-minded women, such as Lease’s fellow Kansas Populist Annie Diggs, assumed important roles on the political stage within the Populist Party, but, as one newspaper wrote, Lease simply was “the most famous woman orator of the century.” Although the notoriety of Lease’s radical economic activism was rarely rivaled, the gendered responses she encountered reflected the larger political rhetoric of the late nineteenth century in which ideas of manliness and femininity constructed both political language and behavior.17 An examination of Lease’s celebrated Populist Party speeches along with opponents’ and supporters’ responses exposes how gender ideals and gendered discourse shaped her political efforts and, by consequence, the agrarian revolt itself to some extent. Such a study also illuminates the ways in which contending partisan newspapers commonly employed gendered rhetoric to attack political opponents. This book analyzes newspaper accounts of Lease’s Populist Party political career as well as her few recorded speeches during the 1890s to assess the ways in which the era’s gender ideals both shaped and portrayed Lease’s participation in the radical agrarian reform movement. Americans’ gendered responses to Lease’s public activism revealed how profoundly gender norms shaped Gilded Age political rhetoric. In fact, despite her militant calls for class warfare and her anti-capitalist remarks, it was Lease’s gender and her assumed defiance of gender roles that generated the vast majority of criticism and comments from her political opponents and supporters alike.

Like other activists, farmers, and laborers, Lease championed a closer relationship between laboring individuals and the state in an effort to counter the seemingly unassailable power of large industrialists and dishonest politicians. No longer would the state be viewed as a danger to individual liberties and a remote entity controlled by an untouchable elite, thought Lease. With the assistance of the Populists, labor groups, and women’s organizations, the state would be an entity ← 5 | 6 → controlled by the people, representing the needs of the populace and not the whims of the “money power.” Lease was not advocating the establishment of the modern welfare state, yet she did want the government to alter its laissez-faire economic policies and its ostensibly corrupt partnership with monopolies. Before such public policy ideas were popularized by writers like Herbert Croly and Progressives like Theodore Roosevelt, the Jeffersonian ideology of self-sufficiency underwent a transformation when Americans such as Lease determined that the economic and social crises of the age necessitated governmental restraint of monopolies along with government protection of middling and poor Americans through corporate regulations and monetary policies aimed at stabilizing the national economy.18

Lease’s career reflects both how the Populists rose so spectacularly and why they disintegrated so quickly. Agrarian reform leaders like Lease were optimistic that their new Populist Party could bring about concrete agrarian, monetary, and government regulatory reform. The Populists’ movement toward partisanship, boss-style politics, and other vote-generating strategies, however, angered Lease and pushed her into heated debates with fellow activists. Her experiences with the Populist Party revealed the structural and organizational barriers that have consistently encumbered third-party organizing in the United States as well as the entrenched power of the two-party system since the mid-nineteenth century. Lease’s third-party endeavors also illustrated how politicking, leadership power struggles, and pragmatic organizational decisions led the Populist Party away from its original strategic goals.

Dismayed by the Populist Party’s turn toward “old-party” politics, Lease gradually drifted from rural to urban America and from Populism to Progressivism during the late 1890s. Lease’s Progressive reform activism exposes the ideological connections between the Populist and Progressive movements as both exhibited fears about monopolies, condemned corruption, called for increased government regulation, and offered women unusual leadership opportunities. Whereas historians such as C. Vann Woodward, Richard Hofstadter, and Michael Kazin have alluded to the evident ideological connections between the two movements, particularly their shared anti-monopoly strains, a case study of Lease the Populist and Lease the Progressive substantiates the linkages between the two movements.19 Though many of the reforms that the Populists and Progressives promoted were eventually adopted into law, the dissolution of the two parties signified the triumph of big business and the nation’s ideological turn away from an idealized, preindustrial, small-producer America following World War One.

As a Populist politician and Progressive reformer, Lease shared with Thomas Jefferson a preference for agrarian society and likewise shared with Andrew Jackson a fear of certain types of concentrated power, though she espoused modern ideas concerning the positive influence of an activist state that operated as a regulator of big business and a protector of the populace. She called upon politicians to use and ← 6 | 7 → expand governmental power on behalf of those American groups disadvantaged by the advance of industrialization and the expansion of corporate monopolies. Like many Progressives, Lease came to accept the permanency of big business and a new corporate capitalist system, but also believed it should and could be effectively regulated. Whereas third-party reformers like Tom Watson remained tied to the anti-monopoly Greenbacker tradition and primarily sought an agrarian past, Lease’s Progressive Party participation revealed her recognition that corporate expansion and its envelopment of all segments of society were not temporary phenomenons and thus necessitated new forms of institutional reform and government intervention. Distrusting individual states to remedy these problems, Lease instead called upon the federal government to regulate business-related economic exchanges and aid agricultural and industrial workers. Her advocacy of the expansion of federal power anticipated the coming of modern America and anticipated President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Uncovering Lease’s story challenges the historian because she has no surviving papers and her writings do not appear at length in any contemporary’s manuscript files. Consequently, only one biography of Lease, Richard Stiller’s narrative called Queen of Populists—The Story of Mary Elizabeth Lease, has been published to date. Stiller’s book contains helpful information concerning the chronological development of Lease’s early life, but his text, based upon scanty documentation, does not analyze her post-Populist Party activities. Stiller also fails to address issues relating to gender and the ways in which big business altered both the market economy and American politics during the late nineteenth century.20 A few journal articles, including Dorothy Blumberg’s “Mary Elizabeth Lease, Populist Orator: A Profile,” O. Gene Clanton’s “Intolerant Populist? The Disaffection of Mary Elizabeth Lease,” and Edward James’s “More Corn, Less Hell? A Knights of Labor Glimpse of Mary Elizabeth Lease,” have addressed Lease’s speeches, women’s rights activism, and labor protests so this book offers the first comprehensive look at Lease’s entire wide-ranging career, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between Lease’s personal experiences, gendered public discourse, and the intense political wrangling of the late nineteenth century.21 More recently, Laura Lovett’s superb book, entitled Conceiving the Future: Pronatalism, Reproduction, and the Family in the United States, 1890–1938, offers a thoughtful chapter on one aspect of Lease’s Populist Party career. Lovett argues that Lease and other female Populists certainly defied contemporary separate-spheres gender norms by engaging in ‘masculine’ political activities, yet also “essentialized” women as mothers by justifying their actions through the language of motherhood in which they claimed maternal influence in politics would naturally secure and protect agrarian family life. Lease and the Populists maternal devotion to “the people,” contends Lovett, translated into campaigning for government-funded education and charity services as well as big business regulation. Lovett concludes that Lease’s “maternalist,” pronatalist ← 7 | 8 → language nostalgically idealized agrarian life and farm mothers in an effort to promote Populist-supported political and economic reforms.22


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (February)
biography radical leader feminist movement
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 316 pp.

Biographical notes

Brooke Speer Orr (Author)

Brooke Speer Orr is Associate Professor of U.S. History at Westfield State University in Massachusetts. She won the Edgar Langsdorf Award for Excellence in Writing for her article on Mary Elizabeth Lease published in the prestigious Kansas History journal.


Title: The ‘People’s Joan of Arc’
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324 pages