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The ‘People’s Joan of Arc’

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

by Brooke Speer Orr (Author)
Monographs 316 Pages

Table Of Content

  • 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
  • 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
  • Bibliography
  • MANUSCRIPTS AND PAPERS
  • 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)
  • NEWSPAPERS
  • PRIMARY SOURCES
  • SECONDARY SOURCES
  • Index

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Chapter 1

Introduction

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

Although Lease’s personal story has not been fully explored until now, the Populist movement has received substantial attention.23 Beginning in 1931 with John Hicks’s publication of The Populist Revolt, historians have debated the origins and legacy of the Populist movement. In his comprehensive look at Populism nationwide, Hicks maintained that farmers’ local economic hardships spurred the Populist revolt, particularly on the western frontier. “The Populist philosophy thus boiled down finally to two fundamental propositions,” insisted Hicks, “one, that the government must restrain the selfish tendencies of those who profited at the expense of the poor and needy; the other, that the people, not the plutocrats, must control the government.” Hicks argued that the Populists’ basic doctrine that agricultural and industrial workers ought to earn a comfortable living for their work and that ‘the people’ should control the government “showed amazing vitality,” while their assessment that the nation’s money system was erratic and inelastic was accurate. He contended that the Populists correctly identified the economic problems of their day and then offered sound remedies, such as government measures to increase the money supply, which addressed the real and substantial agricultural hardships plaguing Gilded-Age farmers. Hicks’s flattering description of the agrarian movement provided little information about the charismatic Lease, or any other female Populists, possibly reflecting the gender ideals of the Great Depression era more than the historic narrative of Populism.24

Hicks’s work remained the standard interpretation of Populism until intellectual historian Richard Hofstadter published The Age of Reform in 1955. Whereas Hicks concentrated on farmers’ local financial troubles caused by railroad corporations and particular state legislation, Hofstadter tended to orient Populist-identified economic crises within a larger framework. Though emphasizing farmers’ psychology and their acceptance of the “agrarian myth,” Hofstadter like Hicks maintained that the Populists believed “the federal government had some responsibility for the common weal.” Yet Hofstadter insisted that Lease and the Populists were intensely nativist and anti-Semitic. Hofstadter’s Age of Reform devoted far more attention to Lease than had Hicks. Hofstadter’s discussion emphasized Lease’s racism and use of anti-Semitic language, but exaggerated her personal paranoia regarding international business conspiracies, ideas which she most likely espoused in speeches because of their rhetorical, audience-rousing effect.25

In 1963, Walter Nugent published The Tolerant Populists, which worked to mend the Populists’ image and challenge Hofstadter’s portrayal of the Populist Party as a mean-spirited and rather ignorant group. Hofstadter too greatly emphasized “social psychological concepts [such] as scapegoat-seeking and status-resentment” along with “the psychopathological and irrational” within Populism, Nugent argued, and ← 8 | 9 → thus “gave very little notice to the concrete economic and political reality involved in Populism.” Like Hofstadter, Nugent insisted that the Populists maintained a strong attachment to American nationalism, but he noted it stressed “democratic republicanism and economic democracy” more than a jingoist-inspired nationalism. Nugent essentially aligned himself with Hicks by asserting that “Populism in Kansas was a political response to economic distress.” Nugent mentioned Lease several times in his work to ridicule her “bizarre personality” and criticize her anti-fusion sentiments; he offered scant new or illuminating information about Lease.26

If Nugent took steps to debunk the Hofstadter analysis, then Lawrence Goodwyn most eloquently brought humanity back in to the Populist historical narrative. In his 1976 book, Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America, Goodwyn indicated that to understand Populism historians must observe the “movement culture” that dominated Populism, and not simply study the formation of the agrarian third party. In challenging previous narratives that focused primarily upon the creation of the Populist Party, Goodwyn instead traced the development of farmers’ political consciousness to the 1870s and 1880s when they worked together as Grange and Farmers’ Alliance members to build a movement that would enable them to regain respect and control over their lives. Goodwyn maintained that the Populist Party’s politicking actually subdued the farmers’ mass movement culture and ultimately stymied their radical impulses. Of the comprehensive works published about the Populist movement, the Democratic Promise has probably offered the most flattering portrait of Lease. Goodwyn praised Lease for her early realization that the 1896 silver crusade lacked Populism’s original radical energy and was essentially a mechanism meant to attract Democratic votes.27

After the publication of Goodwyn’s comprehensive work, historians moved toward examining Populism on the state and local levels. Investigations of Kansas Populism include books by O. Gene Clanton, Peter Argersinger, and Scott McNall. All of these works discuss Lease because it would be difficult to consider the prairie movement without discussing her participation. Other historians moved in different, more theoretical directions after Goodwyn’s book. In 1995, Michael Kazin published The Populist Persuasion, which explores populist rhetoric throughout American history. Kazin insists that Populism was “more an impulse than an ideology” and that various people and groups “employed Populism as a flexible mode of persuasion” throughout American history. Kazin argues that the 1890’s Populists rebelled in order to restrain “the hands of the modernizing elite,” and the content of Lease’s speeches and writings support his assessment.28

While this book benefits from the extensive literature discussing the Populist Party, the study also draws upon the expanding scholarship in the field of American women’s history. The historiographic evolution of women’s history is complex, but it may be briefly summarized as beginning with examinations of “notable” women’s ← 9 | 10 → contributions to history, then moving in the late 1960s and 1970s into investigations of the everyday lives of middle- and upper-class native-born white women constrained by the “cult of domesticity,” and finally, more recently, endeavoring to investigate the lives of “ordinary” women, women’s “agency,” and women’s direct participation in politics.29 Historians of women’s history now seek to demonstrate how women’s exclusion from political and economic power was accomplished. Three themes have also generally dominated the literature concerning nineteenth-century American women’s history. The first focuses on women as victims of unrelenting patriarchy, the second upon women who found some satisfaction or even some power within their designated sphere, and the third on the development of a unique female “subculture” within the women’s sphere.30 The limiting “cult of domesticity” notion along with the creation of a separate and bonded women’s sphere popularized by Barbara Welter, Nancy Cott, Ann Douglas, and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, among others, has traditionally dominated scholarship pertaining to nineteenth-century American womanhood.31 For her part, Mary Lease does not fit neatly into such an historical construction as she maneuvered outside the domestic sphere, though was roundly chastised for this, and she noticeably lacked a sense of ‘sisterhood’ nor sought female ‘bonding’ per se, though she actively campaigned for women’s rights throughout her lifetime.

This work reflects many of the newer trends in the literature on women in nineteenth-century American politics. Elizabeth Varon’s We Mean to be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia; Nancy Isenberg’s Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America; Lyde Sizer’s The Political Work of Northern Women Writers and the Civil War; Stephanie McCurry’s Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country; and Melani Gustafson’s Women and the Republican Party examine women’s political roles in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.32 Similarly, Michael Goldberg’s An Army of Women: Gender and Politics in Gilded-Age Kansas and Rebecca Edwards’s Angels in the Machinery: Gender in American Party Politics from the Civil War to the Progressive Era expose the complexities of Populism by discussing how the Populist, Republican, and Democratic parties used gendered language to promote and defend their candidates and policy proposals.33 Donald Marti’s Women on the Grange: Mutuality and Sisterhood in Rural America and Maryjo Wagner’s dissertation called “Farms, Families, and Reform: Women in the Farmers’ Alliance and Populist Party” likewise explore how traditional gender ideals were championed by the Grange movement, the Farmers’ Alliance, and the Populist Party even as each movement evolved within the more socially fluid West and focused predominantly on economic issues.34 Demonstrating that women moved in and altered the male public sphere and occasionally adopted masculine political traits, these investigations challenge earlier works that exclusively highlighted nineteenth-century gender sphere segmentation, the domestic paradigm, and women’s reform activities like church work and ← 10 | 11 → volunteerism that existed outside of partisan political circles. Lease’s public Populist career revealed both the power of traditional gender ideals along with society’s slow turn from Victorian social mores.

Historians of women’s history frequently approach history from a ‘feminist perspective,’ though what actually defines such a perspective is up for debate, beyond the general disapproval of women’s subordinate status in history, the belief that women’s disadvantaged position in history was not inevitable, as well as an acknowledgment that past history was told from an overtly subjective and male-centered stance. This book draws from such a feminist perspective, loosely defined, as well as the field of gender studies that emphasizes the socially acquired characteristics of femaleness and maleness, as opposed to “sex” or the biological attributes of female and male. Complementing gender studies is the work of poststructuralists like Michael Foucault who explore power hierarchies to understand how knowledge is “produced,” concluding that power is inherent in ideas and that ideas or “discourses” create inherent power structures. Mary Lease mastered the art of rhetorically attacking and breaking apart power structures through her almost unmatched ability to both reiterate and manipulate discourse. This book also draws from one of the largest subfields of women’s history, women’s labor history, investigating controversies over women’s ‘difference’ and victimization in the work force, the impact of capitalism and industrialization on women, gender biases within the labor movement, and the varied working experiences of women influenced by certain identity markers such as race, ethnicity, family status, religion, class, and geography to name a few.35

Mary Elizabeth Lease’s expansive activist career places her amongst the foremost reformers of her age. Lease participated in politics long before American women achieved any substantial positions within the political realm. She was able to transform political circumstances and even change the outcome of several elections through her lobbying efforts. Her story reveals how the nation’s agricultural sector reacted to a depression, how industrial workers coped with the wage-labor system, how capitalists responded to resistance, how women attempted to transcend disempowerment, how gendered discourse was employed to support a multitude of perspectives, and how Americans came to embrace an activist state. Lease’s experiences also demonstrate how and why some reformers regarded the political process as the safest means to achieve change while others employed unconventional grassroots strategies to resist the status quo. The diverse suits Lease wore, ranging from housewife to radical monetary activist, 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 ← 11 | 12 → supporters and a dangerous, unfeminine demagogue to her opponents, but either way was unquestionably one of the most captivating figures of her time. As her Populist contemporary Annie Diggs said of her: “In the to-be-written history of this great epoch, Mrs. Mary E. Lease will have a most conspicuous place.”36

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Chapter 2

Mary Elizabeth Clyens Lease: Origins of a Radical, 1853–1888

Mary Elizabeth Lease was born on September 11, 1853, in Ridgway, Elk County, Pennsylvania to Joseph P. Clyens and Mary Elizabeth Murray Clyens. Mary was the third child born to the Clyenses, and the first born in America. Her father, Joseph Clyens, toiled as a farmer, while her mother, Mary Murray Clyens, was relatively well educated, attaining some knowledge of Greek, Latin, and French, and, according to Mary Lease, was the niece of the Catholic bishop of Dublin. In order to escape British authorities and endemic poverty, the Clyens family emigrated from Ireland in 1853, arriving in America when sectional tensions were intensifying.1

Mary Lease’s later radicalism, in her own estimation, sprung in large part from her parents’ experiences in Ireland, namely her Irish father’s failed attempts to rebel against local British landowners and her family’s risky escape from British authorities, along with the havoc of the potato famine and its devastating poverty. Mary Lease’s father, Joseph Clyens, toiled as a farmer in Monaghan County, Ireland until the potato famine forced tenant farmers like Joseph off of their land and into a precarious debted state. While still in Ireland, Joseph, an ardent Irish Nationalist, attempted to organize a revolt against British rulers and absentee landowners. Learning of the rebellion, British authorities reportedly set out to seize and hang him, forcing the Clyens family to flee to America. Like many of their Irish Catholic tenant-farmer compatriots evicted in Ireland by British authorities, the Clyens family traveled to America relatively impoverished and for political amnesty. Soon after their arrival in America, Mary Lease was born in 1853, in Ridgway, Pennsylvania. That the Clyens family immigrated as a family group and were able to move to Pennsylvania and away from the crowded port cities where many Irish immigrants resided suggested the family had some savings, despite their recorded hardships, and consequently were better off financially than many of their immigrant contemporaries. Nevertheless, according to Mary Lease, her “father was an Irish exile” who “was banished from Ireland” and thus “fled to America with a price set upon his head and his property confiscated by the English crown.” In fact, ← 13 | 14 → Mary Lease explicitly attributed her radical spirit and candid hatred of the British to her father. “He took up arms against the British government,” Lease recalled in one Irish Nationalist address, and hence “I came by my rebellious spirit honestly.”2

In America, the Clyens family attempted to farm in Ridgway, Pennsylvania and thereafter in Ceres, Allegany County, New York. First settled during the early nineteenth century, American farmers were attracted to the rich forests and rivers of Elk County, Pennsylvania. Settlers’ use of the area’s natural environment eventually encouraged the growth of a flourishing lumber trade, productive tanneries, and a busy merchant shipping trade via waterways to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore. Although Ridgway evolved into a prosperous town lined with Victorian-style houses by the late nineteenth century with the rise of the paper making, coal mining, and powdered metal industries, the area was rural and isolated when the Clyenses and other families took up settlement. Unable to adapt Irish farming methods to the American habitat, the Clyens family teetered into relative poverty.3 Mary Lease’s earliest memories were thus of agricultural hardship, laying the foundation for her later agrarian radicalism.

Religious institutions provided community networks and social outlets for Elk County residents, and the Clyens family attended a local Catholic church. Mary Lease routinely attended church with her family and enrolled in Elk County’s parochial schools throughout her childhood, but as an adult she expressed anti-church sentiments, questioned papal authority, and denounced church leaders for ignoring the plight of the nation’s poor, all ideas that may have developed during her childhood and teenage years in Ceres.4 Lease’s ethnic and religious background nurtured her intense hatred of the British, but also possibly her deep distrust of powerful institutions ranging from banks to churches.

Mary Lease’s childhood was set within the turbulent social and political context of American sectionalism as she was born the year before the Kansas Nebraska Act passed and turned 10 years old when the Battle of Gettysburg and the Siege of Vicksburg changed the tide of the American Civil War. With the onset of the war, Mary Lease’s older brothers joined the Union Army and witnessed battlefield bloodshed almost immediately. Though no records survive confirming their volunteerism, the Clyens brothers reportedly voluntarily enlisted in the Union Army, and were not drafted like their father and thousands of other Irish immigrants by the middle of the war, suggesting that they maintained some level of ideological commitment to the Union cause that might have influenced their sister Mary and explain the family’s surprising Republican Party leanings. The memory of the Civil War and the high price Mary’s family paid in battle powerfully shaped her politics as an adult. Mary’s elder brother, Patrick Henry Clyens, enlisted with Union forces in April 1861 with the outbreak of the war. He became a member of the famous Bucktail Sharpshooters regiment of Pennsylvania, which organized at the outset of the war with members carrying their own rifles southward “wearing in ← 14 | 15 → their hats the tail of a deer as [a] badge of their prowess and skill in mountaineer marksmanship,” but died in Virginia at the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862. Mary would later deliver a Memorial Day address honoring the “Old Bucktails” in 1914 in Cowanesque, Pennsylvania, located in the central, northern region of the state bordering New York.5 An adopted brother, Daniel Green Clyens, who also enlisted in the Bucktail Regiment in 1861, was among the “missing in battle” after the October 1863 Battle at Lookout Mountain in Tennessee. Mary’s maternal uncle, Colonel James Murray, died at Gettysburg in July 1863 while leading his regiment into battle.6 During the Civil War, approximately 620,000 soldiers died; an equivalent proportion of today’s population would be six million. As historian Drew Gilpin Faust concludes the sacrifice of death for family and state became a principle factor shaping the lives of those Americans like Mary Lease who lived through the devastation.7

Joseph Clyens was drafted into service for a three-year period on August 22, 1863, as a private in New York’s Company B of the 147th Regiment.8 He was captured and died at the Confederates’ Andersonville prison in Georgia on August 17, 1864, after reportedly starving to death. News of the inhumane conditions at Andersonville prison eventually reached Union families in the North. The Clyens family was likewise probably privy to the dramatic stories of starvation, disease, and torture within the prison walls, spurring Mary to strongly denounce the Confederate “rebel soldiers.” Of the 45,000 men imprisoned at Andersonville, 13,000 died of disease, exposure, or malnutrition, while the only Confederate executed for war crimes at the close of the war would be Andersonville prison warden Captain Hartmann Heinrich Wirz.9 Referring to Andersonville prison as “the torture pen of the Confederacy” and decrying the deaths of her father, uncle, and brothers when she was approaching her teenage years, Mary told an audience in 1886, “you will pardon me for saying that I believe it is not yet too late to ‘hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree,’ or any other available tree.” In 1892, Mary spoke to a crowd in Georgia and called for national reconciliation, but also referred to the honorable and tragic deaths of her relatives during the Civil War. “Her father lay buried beneath the soil in Georgia” after “starving to death at Andersonville,” wrote a reporter summarizing Mary’s speech, while her “brother’s remains lay upon the hills of Virginia.” Demonstrating the Civil War’s lasting psychological influence, on Decoration Day in 1886, Mary addressed an emotional crowd in Wichita, Kansas, speaking at length about her father, Union soldiers, and the glory of the Union’s cause. Memories of the Civil War fueled Mary’s radicalism and likewise would later shape her views about the potential positive influence of expanded federal, versus state, government power.10

Although most Irish Catholics were loyally devoted to the Democratic Party, Civil War experiences led Mary Lease to develop an intense hatred of the Democratic Party generally and the southern “slavocracy” in particular. Discussing ← 15 | 16 → British blockade runners who supplied goods to the Confederates during the Civil War, Mary declared: “English guns were pointed by Rebel hands at Northern hearts.” Kansas newspapers later cited Mary denouncing “the sectional bigotry and intolerance of the southern Democracy” and “the insolent, arrogant, slave-holding aristocracy of the South.” Mary gained a national reputation for her strong and sensational rhetoric by the late nineteenth century, which was in large part inspired by her family’s Civil War experiences and personal memories. “The all important and living issue now before the people of America,” argued Mary in 1892, “is to wipe out the intolerant, vindictive, slavemaking Democratic Party.”11 Mary’s dislike of entrenched hegemonic institutions, including the former southern slaveholding class, the Democratic Party, the British aristocracy, and the papal hierarchy, were rooted in her childhood experiences. These experiences influenced and molded her later political speeches and shaped her worldview.

In 1868, at the age of 15 and despite her family’s poverty, Mary Elizabeth Clyens graduated with a teaching certificate from a parochial school called St. Elizabeth’s Academy in Allegany, New York. Remembered as a “brilliant student,” Mary particularly excelled in literature and declamation, which foreshadowed her later celebrated status as an orator. After graduation, Mary taught for two years at a small Pennsylvania school housed in a log cabin just across the state line from Ceres, New York.12 Dismayed by the teachers’ low pay, Mary attempted to organize a teachers’ union in order to lobby for higher wages and greater community respect. “The poor wages paid women aroused me,” said Mary, and “when I began teaching, and scarcely more than a child, I rebelled against this and started a movement in northern Pennsylvania and southern New York for better wages for women teachers.” Mary’s organizing efforts failed because her fellow teachers feared challenging school administrators. Refusing to accept defeat, Mary, at age 17 in 1870, left her widowed mother and moved to the Kansas frontier because teachers’ salaries were rumored to be higher there than in eastern states.13 Mary may also have been lured to Kansas for its known endorsement of women’s rights and its Civil War history.

Upon arriving in Kansas Mary Clyens found a teaching position at a Catholic boarding school for girls called St. Anne’s Academy, located in the town of Osage Mission, part of Neosho County in southeastern Kansas. The Osage Catholic Mission was founded in 1847 by Father John Schoenmakers when only Osage Native Americans inhabited the southwestern plains. Like other missions, the Osage Catholic Mission sought to convert Native Americans during the era of American westward expansionism. For her part Mary boarded at St. Anne’s while teaching there. To supplement her income, she found time to teach for one term at a nearby grade school as well. “The teacher is an agent for the betterment of human conditions,” she reflected, “not intellectual conditions alone, but physical, mental and moral conditions.”14 As the teaching profession was rapidly undergoing a ← 16 | 17 → process of feminization during the postbellum period, adventuresome women like Mary Clyens found teaching a viable and more profitable occupation in the West than in the East. Closely reflecting Mary’s own teaching experience, women teachers who settled in the West tended to be older, had lost at least one parent, typically had greater professional experience upon taking a position in the West than their eastern counterparts, and often identified their western experiences with freedom, nature, and evangelical service. Her tenure at St. Anne’s possibly contributed to her later disillusionment with organized religion and religious authorities as Mary worked within a strict hierarchical Catholic administrative system. Describing the evolution of her religious convictions, Mary proclaimed several years later that “I was reared in the Roman Catholic church and I have at various times worshipped at other altars, but I am only a member of the great big church—the church without catechism, the church with no creed.”15

During her teaching tenure in Osage Mission, Mary Clyens met and eventually married Charles Lease, a thirty-year-old assistant in one of the town’s two pharmacies. According to Charles, who was born in 1840, “I was the only son of a well-off farmer in Jefferson County,” located in northeastern Kansas. Although originally skeptical of marriage, Charles later recalled that Mary courted him and “true love” developed. A Jesuit missionary, Father Paul Ponziglione, married Charles Lease and Mary Elizabeth Clyens on January 30, 1873.16 Charles was of medium height with dark hair and, according to his youngest son, was “quite a powerful man.” Despite their apparent affection, the newly married couple maintained divergent political views as Mary regarded Republican Abraham Lincoln as America’s greatest hero while Charles was a Democratic Party member and revered Lincoln’s old adversary, Democrat Stephen A. Douglas.17 The historic 1858 Lincoln–Douglas political debates allegorically foreshadowed the Leases’ later marital troubles.

At the outset of their marriage, Mary assumed domestic duties and Charles worked as a druggist, acted as a director of the Neosho County Savings Bank, and became an active Mason. Early on Lease exhibited an impatience with her domestic role, so, among other activities, between 1873 and 1883 she occasionally contributed poems and commentary to the Osage Mission Transcript. While living in Osage Mission and probably to further quell her restlessness, Mary Lease wrote and staged a well-received play called “The Coming Woman or the Spirit of ’76,” which depicted the United States under the control and administration of women and raised funds for St. Anne’s Academy.18 Her play, which foreshadowed her later public speeches linking women’s political rights to patriotism, demonstrated a surprising level of radicalism even before she encountered agrarian activists and entered the public political stage.

The relatively fluid social relations in Kansas and other midwestern states may have facilitated the development of Lease’s women’s rights ideas. For instance, ← 17 | 18 → though not challenging basic gender hierarchies, the Kansas legislature provided women with economic and legal rights not incorporated into many southern and eastern state constitutions. The 1859 Kansas Free State convention granted women the most liberal property and divorce laws of any state at that time, as well as the right to vote in school board elections. In 1861, Kansas became the first state legislature to give women the right to vote in school elections. In 1867, women’s suffrage became a statewide controversy in Kansas, with the legislature submitting an amendment to the Kansas electorate to enfranchise white women, which was the first time such a question went to a direct vote, making Kansas the first state to consider women’s suffrage, although the amendment was defeated. The amendment was defeated in 1867 and again in 1893, but, by 1912, Kansas adopted a state constitutional amendment allowing for women’s full suffrage. Earlier in 1879, in Lincoln, Kansas, the state’s first women’s suffrage organization, called the Equal Suffrage Association (ESA), was established, and a statewide ESA was founded in 1884. On the other hand, while women typically gained voting and other rights in the West earlier than in the East, this development did not necessarily reflect a recognition of western women’s autonomous liberties and rights.19 The very isolation or distance from entrenched eastern ‘society’ allowed or in most cases necessitated that women break out of traditional molds. When the farm needed tending then acting the ‘lady’ part made little practical sense. That being said conventional notions of male and female roles still shaped cultural expectations of direct political participation even if women maintained certain legal rights not afforded women in the East and South. With the farm and family so inextricably linked and with the history of the state so intertwined with abolitionism, a reform purview historically accessible to women, it made sense that the onset of the agrarian reform movement would expand the female political sphere in Kansas giving women like Lease an unprecedented political voice.

After enjoying an essentially middle-class lifestyle while living in Osage Mission, Charles and Mary Lease confronted financial ruin during the depression that hit the nation in the mid-1870s. Higher crop prices, plentiful rainfall, and a strong national economy ironically caused an agricultural boom on the prairie in the early 1870s. During the boom in Kansas, railroad lines were overbuilt and undercapitalized while towns amassed large municipal debts after the Kansas state government lent money to municipalities indiscriminately and without interest. Perhaps encouraged by the agricultural boom, Mary and Charles Lease journeyed West in the spring of 1873 to settle and establish their own farm in Kingman, Kansas on land acquired under the Homestead Act. To purchase tools and pay the local land office’s fees that permitted farmers to settle on this allegedly free land, Charles borrowed money from a local loan company. The hardships of farm life were immediately apparent as the Leases lived first in an uncomfortable dugout and later in a sod house on the Kansas prairie. Despite their high aspirations, their arid ← 18 | 19 → homestead resembled a desert. Grasshoppers, mosquitoes, bedbugs, lice, snakes, and other creatures created problems for Lease and other frontier women trying to maintain Victorian decorum.20 Like many prairie women living in isolation and seeking ways to avoid depression while working hard to keep their farms afloat, Mary consoled and entertained herself by reading Shakespeare, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays on “Self-Reliance” and “Compensation,” and Harper’s and Scribner’s magazines. To combat boredom and practice domestic thrift, Lease apparently aimed “to improve every moment. I have often kneaded bread or washed the dishes with some newspaper article of interest pinned to the wall in front of me that I might waste no time in digesting its contents.”21

Unable to escape their heavy mortgage debt with its accompanying high interest rate, a problem exacerbated by the onset of the economy’s collapse in 1873, the Leases’ Kingman farm was repossessed by their loan company a year after they first settled there. This experience had a profound psychological impact on Mary and would be referenced in her later speeches castigating mortgage companies’ exploitive behaviors, or what she regarded as quasi-legal thievery and robbery.22 Following their brief and unsuccessful farming stint in Kingman, the Leases moved in April 1874 to Denison, Texas, a newly incorporated town located in northeastern Texas between Dallas and the Oklahoma border.23 Denison’s atmosphere was profoundly different from Osage Mission, filled with men, saloons, gambling halls, and street fighting. Recognizing the difficulties of farming, Charles returned to the pharmacy trade and worked as a clerk for Dr. Alexander Acheson at Acheson’s Drugstore. Lease regarded her husband as “one of the very best druggists” and fully admired his work. Pregnant when she left Kansas, Mary gave birth to Charles Henry in November 1874, followed by Evelyn Louise in 1880, and Grace Lena in the winter of 1883. In 1885, Lease bore her youngest surviving child, Ben Hur, who was probably named after the hero in General Lew Wallace’s popular 1880 novel, while two other children had died in infancy. The high infant mortality rate endemic to harsh prairie life coupled with the Leases’ personal losses may account for their choice of the “Ben Hur” character name referencing betrayal, Biblical messages concerning Jesus, and ultimately redemption. Childbirth remained dangerous and childcare was laborious for working frontier women with diapers scarce and requiring manual washing, and children’s clothes sewn by hand out of coarse materials like old flour sacks.24

Lease did not concern herself with national politics during her residency in Denison, but devoted herself to childcare and domestic chores. When she returned there 20 years later as a famous Populist orator, the Sunday Gazetteer remarked that “it didn’t seem possible that this was the Mrs. Lease of twenty years ago, who, while a resident, was a plain, quiet, demure woman, wrapped up in family, home, and the church. Mrs. Lease has changed, and all for the better.” Still eager to till the land and become the sort of self-sufficient, independent farmer that Thomas Jefferson ← 19 | 20 → had idealized decades earlier, Lease encouraged Charles to move the family back to Kingman and rent a wooden-frame house in 1884 in order to pursue her romantic notions of running a prosperous farm. Like many of their farming contemporaries, bad weather, poor crops, and the constant rise and fall of agricultural prices doomed the Leases to fail in farming yet again. Unable to meet the rent payments due on their house, the Leases abandoned farming in Kingman less than two years after their return and moved to Wichita.25 Despondent and angered by the plight of prairie farmers like herself, Lease reflected years later that “I lived in the very midst of the desert, solitary, desolate, with no society save my children and no companions but our lonely thoughts. It was an awful life, dreary, monotonous, hard, bleak and uninspiring.”26

Mary Lease did however seek to ease the monotony and hard life she experienced while living in Denison, Texas by becoming active in a number of reform organizations. A Denison contemporary said of Lease: “It was here that the foundation was laid for her future greatness; it was here that she first tried her wings; here she soared forth to the highest pinnacle of fame.” By 1887, for example, Lease was entering public debates over issues such as the protective tariff and its related costs to Midwestern farmers, prohibition, as well as issues more specifically relating to women’s rights. Most significantly, Lease joined the local Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) while living in Denison.27 The WCTU was established in Cleveland, Ohio in 1871, but when Frances Willard became the organization’s president in 1879, she redirected the WCTU’s original tactics of waging local battles against individual saloonkeepers and moved the organization toward direct political action and national organizing efforts. Willard and the WCTU launched a women’s suffrage campaign during the 1880s, so that women could use the franchise to outlaw liquor. Lease’s first public speech was in fact a short address to a Denison WCTU meeting.28

Like Frances Willard, Lease linked motherhood, Christianity, patriotism, and women’s moral authority to legitimize and justify her calls for both prohibition and women’s suffrage. Many of Lease’s ideas relating to women’s presumed maternal and moral authority, and her contention that the vote would enable women to maintain greater moral order within their homes, were ideas that she originally formulated while working with the WCTU.29 Lease and other reformers noted that male voters had turned control of the government over to corrupt and intoxicated (either literally with liquor or metaphorically with power) politicians so women voters were needed to reform and purify the political arena.30 Articulating the connection between politics and the home and expressing the interconnected nature of the public and private spheres, Lease contended that “as politics or the science of government is the basic rock of the altar at which we worship—the foundation of the home—the foundation of the social system in which we live—the structure upon which rests the happiness or unhappiness of our people—women ← 20 | 21 → have resolutely entered that domain of politics and bid fair to maintain there, as else where, her standard: ‘For God and Home and Native Land.’”31 She likewise believed that women were endowed with certain natural gifts, relating to their distinctive feminine dispositions and motherhood, which necessitated their direct public political participation. She argued in an article she later wrote in 1894 that “masculine politics have invaded and degraded the home,” whereas securing women’s political rights would rectify the nation’s social and economic problems as women were morally best suited as reformers. While listing the many economic problems confounding the nation, Lease maintained that “women had no hand in getting things into this muddle, but [they] ask that [they] may try [their] hands at straightening them out.”32 Lease insisted that “our entry as wives and mothers into the political and legislative fields is not the result of individual tastes or morbid sympathies, but a prime necessity, for the purification of politics and the elevation of the race—a factor to remove political and legal disabilities, weed out corrupt political tricksters and bestow a blessing on posterity.” Lease canvassed for women’s direct involvement in the political realm even while she championed the conventional nineteenth-century notion that motherhood was the principle cornerstone of womanhood.33

With the Kansas WCTU formally organized in 1878, temperance women campaigned for dry communities at the local level. They met immediate success when a prohibition amendment was adopted to the Kansas Constitution in 1880, which prohibited the sale of alcohol and remained in effect until 1948. The Kansas WCTU proudly insisted that “the bonnets are on the increase, and . . . there is a great deal of determination in the bonnets.”34 After moving back to Kingman, Kansas to attempt farming once again, Mary Lease wove together the issues of women’s suffrage and temperance at a local WCTU meeting in an 1885 talk entitled “A Plea for the Temperance Ballot for Women.” To combat the problem that “masculine politics has invaded and degraded the home,” Lease reasoned that only through direct political participation would women successfully achieve social reform and economic independence.35 Lease maintained that women would use the ballot to stem drinking and its related domestic abuse by implementing moral, commonsensical legislation. “The ballot is power,” she later argued in 1894, “and power makes respect, and, when placed in the hands of the homekeepers of this nation, it will be a power for uplifting humanity, and women’s wants will not be treated with contempt, as they are to-day.”36 The WCTU argued that women would use the vote to protect the American family by passing temperance laws and other implicitly pro-family legislative pieces that male legislators presumably disregarded as they wrangled for greater personal power. Lease reasoned that “intelligent and progressive women” must enter “the political arena for the purpose of setting men right” and because “where woman is excluded is not a fit place for human beings.” Lease argued that with both temperance legislation and woman’s suffrage enacted, ← 21 | 22 → political corruption would subside, saloons would shut down, and a general “uplifting of humanity” would occur. She insisted that women’s purity, piety, and legislative input were needed to cleanse the national political realm and “strike down the beasts of drunkenness and lust.”37 Lease feared, on the other hand, that the franchise might encourage women to adopt what she categorized as unbecoming masculine traits and an overall proclivity toward violence. “I have been a very earnest worker for the emancipation of woman all my life,” stated Lease, “but the Constitution of the United States provides for war—terrible bloody war, and if woman is enfranchised she must subscribe to that Constitution and admit that she favors murder. . . . When woman is enfranchised, she will have to go down herself in order to bring man up.”38

The link between women’s suffrage and the WCTU’s activism gained momentum in Kansas after the state WCTU endorsed a suffrage resolution in 1880, and into the 1890s when suffragist Susan B. Anthony addressed WCTU meetings throughout the state.39 Lease delivered speeches in support of both prohibition and women’s suffrage, and appeared deeply moved by both issues, though suffrage seemed to be her highest priority. By 1886, therefore, Lease was actively involved in the women’s suffrage campaign in Kansas. Although she routinely challenged the organizational strategies of her suffrage contemporaries, particularly their reliance upon working within the traditional partisan political realm, Lease remained fully committed to the women’s suffrage movement until ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. For instance, Lease introduced Susan B. Anthony at a suffrage convention hosted by the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the Kansas Equal Suffrage Association (KESA) and held in Wichita from October 19 to 21, 1886, while she herself acted as a featured speaker at KESA’s annual meetings throughout the following decade.40 Although later reports suggested their frosty relationship, Lease complimented Anthony and introduced her on “behalf of un[en]franchised and helpless womanhood” and stated that “I have the pleasure of introducing the pioneer of equal suffrage, the friend and benefactor of her sex, Susan B. Anthony.” Foreshadowing how the Kansas suffrage crusade would become bogged down in partisan politics, a reporter covering the convention noted that Lease went on to comment that the third party favored women’s rights. Possibly in response to Lease’s partisan comments, suffrage advocate and Republican Laura Johns, considered “a prime favorite” by the reporter, proposed a toast to the Republican Party. Anthony responded that women held no votes in any party, and thus any suffrage association should remain non-partisan.41

Lease consistently set herself apart from other suffrage advocates through both her direct, polemical presentation style and by the ideological underpinnings of her women’s rights agenda. Before a large crowd at a meeting for the Wichita Woman’s Suffrage Association in December 1886, she spoke for an hour on women’s ← 22 | 23 → suffrage. Calling for women’s immediate and unconditional political representation and participation, Lease additionally asked her audience to observe and emulate the reform activities and public roles of great female reformers like Harriet Beecher Stowe. Lease wanted women to obtain more than the vote; she wanted women to assume positions of substantial influence and power throughout society and within political organizations. She consequently disliked the use of deferential language sometimes employed by her suffrage contemporaries. Instead, Lease espoused more radical, if not sexist, rhetoric in her women’s rights speeches. For instance, Lease forcefully stated that “a man can’t successfully fight a woman. That’s settled. Physically he may crush her but in all else she is too lofty for his weapons.”42

After a decade of agitation by the local WCTU and the Kansas Equal Suffrage Association (KESA), women gained municipal suffrage in 1887, allowing women to run for office in Kansas and vote in all city elections.43 In 1887, the Kansas WCTU asked Franklin George Adams and Laura Johns, Lease’s future political rival, to collect voting data and tabulate the votes cast by women in the April 1887 municipal elections in Kansas. Of the 221 Kansas cities counted, with a total population of 435,942, the total vote was 89,635, with male voters accounting for 64,573 votes and female voters accounting for 25,062. Thus, Adams and Johns concluded: “It is no longer a question whether women want the vote. They do want the vote. This is proven by the fact that they voted the first opportunity given to them. They have voted with an intelligent zealous, earnest interest in the good of the community in which they have their homes.” Women have voted “for the common welfare” and “moral welfare” in their votes for schools, anti-liquor laws, and sanitary reforms. The authors insisted that the municipal elections proved naysayers wrong as women voted and the elections were “orderly.”44 Meanwhile, Susannah Medora Walter was elected mayor in Argonia, Kansas as a result of these April 1887 municipal elections.45 Yet Lease was not satisfied. Insisting that Kansas women deserved the right to vote in all elections, Lease declared that “the results of this masculine government force themselves upon her notice, and enter into every detail of the home life. When the cupboard is empty, she knows it first. She sees the wild beasts of drunkenness infest our national capital, and roam unchecked through our land.” Lease complained that the right to vote in only local elections was a “pitiful crumb” and she instead called for unconditional, universal women’s suffrage. She strongly rejected arguments concerning women’s inept political abilities and demonstrated early on that she was more radical and vocal than most suffragists.46

Lease’s advocacy of women’s suffrage drew her into conflicts with some of the most powerful politicians in Kansas. During the spring and summer of 1887, United States Senator John James Ingalls, a Kansas Republican who had served in the Senate since 1873, spoke out against women’s suffrage.47 Senator Ingalls argued that Kansans who advocated municipal women’s suffrage were generally “long ← 23 | 24 → haired men and short haired women, the unsexed of both sexes.” According to Ingalls, “suffrage is a privilege, conditioned upon age, sex, birth, property, or intelligence, conferred by the state upon such citizens as are considered most likely to aid in the accomplishment of the fundamental objects for which government is established: the diffusion of civil rights and political equality, with efficient and vigorous guarantees for the protection of life, the security of property, and the preservation of personal liberty.” Ingalls directly challenged WCTU women like Lease by reasoning that “this theory that all women, or a majority of them, would always vote for the purification of politics and society, has been practically tested in Utah” where women voted to maintain Mormon hegemony. Ingalls declared that suffrage limitations were placed on women not by men but by a “higher power” and “there was no legislation that can veto the ordinances of nature or that can abrogate the statutes of Almighty God.”48

Lease responded to Senator Ingalls’s comments and writings about women’s rights by launching an effective public speaking campaign in 1888 that denounced Ingalls and the Republican Party. In fact, Lease’s opposition to Ingalls’s views encouraged her radicalism and pushed her to conclude that the government could effectively help individuals only when powerful Republican and Democratic politicians were restrained. “Before turning his back on Mrs. Lease,” stated one witness of the Lease-Ingalls feud, “Mr. Ingalls should have remembered that ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’” Throughout this period, Kansas newspapers frequently ran sensational stories about the Lease–Ingalls feud and often commented on Lease’s apparent rejection of orthodox notions of female passivity and submissiveness. Assuming a fully public role in Kansas by the late 1880s, newspapers published Lease’s comments about Ingalls and women’s suffrage, but also considered her views on issues such as term limits, tariffs, the Supreme Court, and President Grover Cleveland’s cabinet members.49 In an angry op-ed concerning Lease’s verbal attacks upon Senator Ingalls, a writer proclaimed: “Her sole ambition is the notoriety that comes of public life. She cares nothing for the cause of the Alliance, farther than that which she can squeeze out of it for her own glory and her own pocket book, and that is a fact. She is a ranting screecher, a she agitator of pure Irish extraction, and a row is her delight.”50 Ingalls likewise attacked Lease and responded sardonically when asked his opinion about Lease’s possible bid for the Senate two years later, “‘She is a great man, is she not?’”51

Mary Lease remained frustrated with Kansans’ limited support of women’s rights, but she would soon be able to bolster her women’s rights claims with cogent legal arguments after she moved with her family to Wichita, Kansas in 1884. The Leases bought a house in Wichita by 1886 at 335 Wabash Street where the family lived until an overdue mortgage forced them to sell in 1897. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, Charles worked as a druggist at Aldrich & Brown Pharmacy located at 728 Douglas Street in Wichita.52 For her part, Mary Lease, soon after moving to ← 24 | 25 → Wichita, began working toward a law career by reading the law under the tutelage of Tom MacMeechan and Charles Ebey, both partners of the so-named Ebey & McMacon Law Office in Wichita. She managed to train as a lawyer while at the same time caring for her children and home, and also taking in boarders and cleaning neighbors’ laundry in order to raise funds to purchase her law books and help pay family expenses. It was not uncommon for women in the postbellum period to supplement their families’ incomes by washing, ironing, sewing, and mending for neighbors. During her lawyering tutorship Lease was an insatiable reader and borrowed books from neighbors, particularly the people she did laundry for, copying passages she liked and fastening them to the walls of her laundry room so she could reread them as she worked.53

In April 1889, after addressing a jury in Wichita’s local courtroom, Lease was admitted to the Kansas bar. Attracting substantial local attention, the courtroom was exceptionally crowded because her presence as a female lawyer defied and challenged Victorian gender conventions concerning women’s proper place within the home. A month after her admittance to the bar, Lease and a female partner, Mary Merrill, daughter of Wichita lawyer James Merrill, opened a law office.54 Lease was not the first female attorney in Kansas and certainly Midwestern and Western states tended to admit women to state bars more readily than elsewhere, though women in these states, like Myra Bradwell of Illinois, continued to face pervasive sex discrimination, femme covert laws, and protracted legal struggles of their own to gain professional recognition. As a contemporary of Lease noted in The History of Woman’s Suffrage, the state “has as many women in the professions as any of the older States. We have lawyers, physicians, preachers and editors, and the number is constantly increasing.”55 Nevertheless, Lease’s decision to practice law brought her immediate notoriety in Wichita. Soon after gaining admission to the bar, Lease was involved in a case in which she defended a local African American man who was involved in a property dispute with a mortgage company. In her defense argument, again delivered in a crowded courtroom and reported on by several local journalists, Lease allegedly “spoke at some length and quite eloquently upon the colored people and the money lenders, praising the former and most bitterly condemning the latter.” Though journalists commended Lease for presenting an “eloquent” statement, she lost the case. Lease claimed that she never charged a fee for any of her legal services.56 That Lease assumed a public role as a lawyer was unique, but that her client was both male and African American seems remarkable given the social and cultural norms of the time as racial segregation and racial violence afflicted the nation. Historically speaking it is surprising that local papers made little comment.

By 1895, Kansas newspapers discussed the possibility of Lease opening her own law firm in Topeka, with one paper joshing that “if she is as good a lawyer as she is a politician she will be on the supreme court bench one of these days.” ← 25 | 26 → Whereas the same paper caustically scribed: “Lease will not make a success at [the] law. She has tried that before. She is a success only as a[n] indiscriminate, unsettled, unthrottled and unbridled howler.”57

Mary Lease applied her legal skills in both her personal life and reforming activities. For instance, she employed legal arguments when campaigning for Populism, labor rights, corporate regulation, and even when she challenged the Kansas State Board of Pharmacy over a pharmaceutical law on behalf of her husband, which the opposition press chastised as an example of how Lease “would rather spend a great deal of money raising hell.” This likewise encouraged the press to ridicule the Leases’ marriage in claiming that Charles was “compelled” to follow his wife’s lead as he was “sleeping and dining at home instead of in prison.”58 Utilizing her lawyering experience when she eventually became a Populist Party member, Lease incorporated legal arguments into her speeches concerning the need for government regulation of certain business enterprises and the implementation of the initiative and referendum systems in order to “banish lobbyists and boddlers and give untrammeled freedom to public opinion.” Lease regarded the courts as vital vehicles for reform as protectors of “the people,” meaning she remained more optimistic about the benefits of working within the traditional legal–economic system than some reformers of her day, like utopian thinker Edward Bellamy or anarchist and radical labor advocate Lucy Parsons.59

She utilized her law background most evidently to advance her women’s rights agenda. In February 1894, Lease delivered a speech in Topeka in honor of the Farmers’ Alliance’s ‘Woman’s Day’ called “The Legal Disabilities of Women,” which detailed her long-standing feminist convictions. Possibly reflecting knowledge she gained during the 1880s while training to become a lawyer, Lease made coverture or femme covert laws—which defined and essentially negated the legal status of married women and gave husbands control of wives’ property, personhood, and children—a focus of her women’s rights activism throughout her career. She insisted that even though mothers suffered for their children, many states’ coverture laws continued to deny mothers’ legal rights to their children, wages, and property. Lease observed that American laws “only recognized man in his capacity of proprietor; hence, women, on our statute books, are classified with idiots, insane people and criminals, represented by masculinity everywhere, save in the payment of taxes and bearing the barbarities of penal legislation.” Coverture laws, she noted, purloin women’s property, children, and their “bread and clothes and shelter and individuality.” Lease concluded that these laws made women a class governed without their consent, violating “the principles upon which this government is founded.” Her speeches protesting such laws utilized both gendered notions regarding women’s moral authority as well as ideas concerning constitutional liberty to protest the legal institutionalization of women’s second-class citizenship.60 Lease argued that the U.S. Constitution guaranteed female ← 26 | 27 → citizens the same protections and civil privileges as male citizens under the Fourteenth Amendment’s “privileges and immunities” and “due process” clauses. Therefore, she reasoned, women must immediately be granted the franchise and equal legal protection so that federal and state governments could be in compliance with the nation’s organic law. Lease justified her reading of the Constitution by citing the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee that men and women were subject to the same “jurisdiction.”61 Her analysis of the Fourteenth Amendment echoed the Reconstruction era franchise debate, paralleled the legal and constitutional arguments articulated by female lawyers like Myra Bradwell, and foreshadowed the actions of 1970s’ feminists who used the Fourteenth Amendment to combat sex discrimination.

While she was reading and practicing the law in Wichita in the 1880s, Lease also embarked upon her public career as a lecturer. On St. Patrick’s Day in 1885, Lease delivered her first widely attended and well-received public speech in Wichita, titled “Ireland and Irishmen.” She identified the British landlord system in Ireland as the root cause of Ireland’s poverty just as she later identified bank and mortgage companies “ownership” of farmers’ lands and control of workers’ lives as the root of American economic inequality. Lease soon gained a reputation for her salty Irish wit, gift for sarcasm, the power of her ridicule, and her ability to elicit emotional responses from her audiences. According to one observer, Lease’s address entitled “Ireland and Irishmen” lasted about an hour and 20 minutes during which she regaled her listeners with tales of Irish folklore, history, and farmer radicalism, and reportedly even moved many in her audience to tears. Several organizations in Kansas subsequently invited Lease to deliver her Irish Nationalist address. Though paid for delivering these lectures, Lease often sent part or all of her earnings to the Irish Land League.62 Signifying the popularity of her speech by 1887, Lease delivered “Ireland and Irishmen” before the Kansas State Legislature and was venerated as a speaker with “wonderful oratorical powers” and as “a gifted woman if not a genius.” Lease continued to spread the Irish Nationalist message of land reform and home rule while employed by the Populist Party as a traveling political lecturer in the 1890s, which meant she brought her Irish Nationalist message to numerous towns and cities throughout America.63 Various organizations, moreover, like the Kansas State Medical Association invited Lease to lecture on less controversial issues concerning Ireland such as her speech described as “An Hour with the Irish Poets.”64 Nevertheless, when asked by a New York Herald reporter in 1894, and after her oratorical career was fully established, regarding “what subject do you prefer to lecture on,” Lease responded that she felt most compelled to discuss “Ireland and Her Wrongs.”65

To understand Mary Lease’s commitment to Irish Nationalist ideas as well as the content of her speeches about both Irish and American farmers and British and American monopolies her childhood story must be placed within the larger context ← 27 | 28 → of Ireland’s mid-nineteenth-century history. From the late 1840s through the 1880s, three million Irish immigrants arrived in the United States, nearly half of whom were “refugees from disaster” fleeing the devastation of the Great Irish Potato Famine. During the centuries before the so-called Great Famine and the accompanying Irish exodus to America, Catholic Ireland’s history was shaped by Protestant England’s political and economic domination as well as a similarly long tradition of intense agrarian poverty. James Joyce once lamented that Irish history “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” The death, destruction, and disease that engulfed Ireland during the potato blights of the late 1840s, along with the mass emigration from Ireland that followed, irrevocably changed Ireland. The memory of the famine, tremendous agricultural poverty, and the one million Irish deaths during the period became an integral part of Ireland’s and Irish-Americans’ collective memory in which many blamed the tragic results on British inaction or even, for some Irish Nationalists like Mary Lease, on British malice. These post-Famine emotions played an integral part in shaping and sustaining the later Irish Nationalist cause championed by Lease and others in America.66

In the three decades following the Great Famine in Ireland improved agricultural production and the erection of new Catholic churches seemed to signal Ireland’s economic recovery. Yet at the end of the 1870s, Ireland faced another land crisis, which coincidently occurred just as Mary Lease and her husband Charles confronted a land and farming crisis in America. Indeed these dual agricultural crises in Ireland and America would soon prompt Mary Lease to join the Irish Nationalist crusade. Following two consecutive crop failures in Ireland and with fears of a new Great Famine rising, the Irish Land League was formed in 1879, and spread quickly throughout Ireland by the end of the year with over 1,000 branches and 200,000 members. The Land League’s so-called land war involved a campaign to expel all landlords, as well as the British generally, and to end the absentee landlord system in Ireland with its rack rent system in which tenants, with no security of tenure, paid a fixed cash rent each year to a landlord that made tenant profitability improbable if not impossible.67 After learning about the Irish Land League and after witnessing economic desperation in America, Lease would become a loyal supporter of the Irish Nationalist cause.

Mary Lease’s firsthand experiences with farmer impoverishment and farm eviction allowed her to effectively communicate and personally connect with her Irish Nationalist and American Populist audiences. Paralleling her parents’ economic struggles in Ireland, Mary and Charles Lease confronted financial ruin during the depression that hit America in the mid-1870s. It was this type of economic desperation that would soon fuel both the American Populist and Irish Nationalist movements. During a speech in which she recalled and related her Irish parents’ immigration story while also denouncing the degraded state of industrializing America, Lease stated that “the warm hearted son of Erin, evicted ← 28 | 29 → from the little cabin that sheltered his forefathers, need look no more with streaming eyes toward America as the Mecca of a home. The same fate awaits him here. The method employed is the same—in Ireland called rack rent, in America interest. The English methods of robbery have been transplanted to our shores. Landlordism, tenantry and eviction flourish and have grown to gigantic stature.” Lease’s speeches contrasted Irish oppression to what she regarded as the exploitation of American farmers by big businesses and banks, and she subsequently called for government assistance and political intervention on behalf of both Irish and American agrarians.68

To aid Irish farmers, Lease advocated for land reform. Charles Stewart Parnell was the foremost nationalist leader of late-nineteenth-century Ireland who founded the Irish Land League and likewise initiated calls for Ireland’s home rule. Mary Lease supported the work of the Irish Land League and admired Parnell as the “uncrowned King” of Ireland. In 1880 Parnell traveled to America to raise funds and organize American Land League branches. Parnell’s American tour was so successful that he concluded Irish-Americans were “even more Irish than the Irish themselves in the true spirit of patriotism.” By 1881 the American Land League had more than 1,500 branches and, by 1882, had collected over half a million dollars from American sources to fund the “land war” in Ireland. The American Land League specifically sought to raise money for the League’s efforts in litigating cases on behalf of evicted Irish tenant farmers.69 Lease assisted the American Land League’s efforts of fundraising and political awareness by lecturing throughout her home state of Kansas as well as in New York City during the 1880s and 1890s.70

Her Irish Nationalist speeches lambasted the “land robbers” and “monied men” whose apparent control of property remained the central social problem debilitating both Ireland and America. Widespread social discontent in America took the form of bloody strikes and labor conflicts during the 1870s and 1880s, followed by labor transformations and radical farmer protests during the Populist political crusade of the 1890s. The Irish-American industrial working class, in particular, expressed their discontent not only by joining labor unions and striking, but also by aiding the Irish Nationalist Land League in order to convey worker and farmer unity and ethnic nationalism. So prevalent was the Irish-American working class in the Irish-Nationalist, labor, and anti-monopoly movements that The New York Times was able to play upon nativist and middle-class resentments of the time, scoffing that “the money that has kept the Land League together has come mostly from the day laborers and servant maids of America.” Nevertheless, connecting property ownership and working-class empowerment, the Irish World pressed for “the land for the people” and said “with the land to fall back upon, the worker would have a potential voice in making his bargain both for hours and for wages.”71 Lease likewise argued that a redistribution of wealth and property were necessary ← 29 | 30 → steps to counter the centralization of capital and power plaguing both America and Ireland.

Her oratorical success on behalf of the Irish National League may have inspired Lease to expand her reform activities and organize a women’s literary club. She placed an advertisement in the Wichita Eagle in January 1886 calling for Wichita women “interested in bettering their own education or the education of others” to form the Hypatia Club, named after the fifth-century female Greek philosopher and educator.72 Regarding their “sensitivity as ladies” as uniquely suited for addressing cultural concerns, women like Lease who joined nineteenth-century literary clubs were typically older, joining only after their children were grown. However, Lease’s youngest child, Ben Hur, was only one when she organized the Hypatia Club, which possibly signified her growing desire to move beyond her domestic responsibilities. Invoking the ideology of women’s natural home-oriented abilities, club women could enter the public sphere by organizing literary clubs that nurtured and cultivated their public voices and by articulating an ideological and cultural link between women’s home protection and political activism.73 In late-nineteenth-century Kansas, adult literary societies were a popular means of improving the adult mind, creating social contexts to combat isolation, and generating a sense of community, albeit usually in sex-segregated groups. Her Wichita Eagle advertisement invited “the intelligent women of Wichita, the artists, musicians, teachers, actors, lecturers, and all women having the advancement of their sex in view” to join the Hypatia Club.74

After several women positively responded to her invitation, Lease and eight other women officially formed the Hypatia Club, electing Lease as its first president. Though the club’s original focus involved literary discussions, the club engaged in politicized activities as well. The club hosted discussions on subjects like the “Higher Culture of Women” and “Norseland, Its Mythology, Literature and Art,” and considered issues relating to literature, art, poetry, drama, music, science, education, business, philanthropy, and local politics.75 The club also called upon the local and dominant Republican Party to support women’s suffrage, but in response its members were publicly ridiculed by the Republican press and pejoratively referred to as a “bevy of females.” Probably gaining organizational skills through their earlier participation in literary societies, late-nineteenth-century female reformers such as Lease launched attacks on aspects of male culture, like public drinking and gambling, in the name of virtue and morality. Such “domestic feminism” became overtly political for reformers like Lease who saw no contradiction in campaigning for home protection in the public sphere.76

While the acting president of the Hypatia Club in 1886, Lease presented a paper on “School Hygiene” before the Kansas State Board of Health, which reflected other ideologues’ comments concerning racial fitness and “civilization.” Her paper insisted that hygiene and physical exercise were necessary to secure the ← 30 | 31 → development of the “race,” by which she probably meant Caucasian Americans. However, Lease appeared to reject some aspects of Social Darwinism as she believed that good works, not simple heredity and competition, could bring about both “the amelioration of pauperism” and improve “the race morally and physically.” Her “School Hygiene” paper also articulated her belief in the connection between mothers’ “divinely-appointed guardianship of children” and the progress of civilization. Discussing women’s central duties within their family units, Lease’s speeches celebrated mothers’ unique and essential roles in the progress of civilization through rearing their children as virtuous patriots. She rationalized that if mothers maintained strong roles within their families then women could simultaneously work to help their children and spouses and “uplift” all of civilization.77 If mothers were to act as the guardians of civilization, Lease reasoned, they must have the power to vote, though she paradoxically essentialized women’s maternal roles in making her political argument.

The year 1886 was a busy one for the emerging public Lease. That year she joined the Wichita branch of the Knights of Labor, which made sense given the organization’s relative commitment to women’s rights and its advocacy of worker protection, ideas echoed in the Irish Nationalist movement. The head of the Knights of Labor, Terrance Powderly, advocated for the establishment of a society in which class conflict would be replaced by class harmony. To achieve this workingmen’s democracy, Powderly asked for the cooperation of a sober, respectable, moral, and self-disciplined working class. Such proposals naturally appealed to women like Lease active in the WCTU. In fact, Frances Willard publicly endorsed the Knights’ goals and tactics, which helped to spread and popularize both organizations’ reform agendas throughout the nation. As strong supporters of the traditional Victorian family structure, the WCTU supported the Knights of Labor’s calls for higher wages and an eight-hour workday. Discussing women in both the WCTU and the Knights of Labor, historian Susan Levine indicates that “the notions of sobriety and respectability easily complemented their vision of domesticity in a cooperative industrial community.”78 Also appealing to WCTU members like Lease was the Knights’ endorsement of prohibition, women’s suffrage, and women’s equality within the labor movement. Lease expressed pride in being a Knights member because “that was the organization that first recognized that women were human beings.”79 Thousands of Irish American women like Lease joined the Knights of Labor and other trade unions during the late-nineteenth century. Irish culture had traditionally valued women’s economic contributions to their family units, so this type of labor-related activism was regarded as socially acceptable and within the parameters of Irish American women’s long-standing familial economic roles.80 While a few other notable Irish American women, such as Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, crossed over from trade unionism to more radical economic activism, most female Irish immigrants viewed their trade unionism in ← 31 | 32 → pragmatic “bread-and-butter” terms and not as a challenge to patriarchy and exclusive male political participation.81

The Knights of Labor encouraged women to join local assemblies and hired women as lecturers and organizers. While lecturing on behalf of the Knights of Labor, Lease gained political experience, improved her speaking and writing skills, and developed her ideas concerning labor reform.82 She regarded women’s economic empowerment as an essential “step” toward gender equity. She asserted that women were “overworked and ill paid,” and she reasoned that women’s higher wages would enable them to escape poverty and subsequently assume some control over the nation’s economic system. Calling for an end to women’s “wage slavery” and labor exploitation, Lease demanded women earn a fair living wage in order to advance their independence.83 Lease shared the lecture platform with Susan B. Anthony at a Knights of Labor convention, at which time Lease referred to the Knights as “mighty” who would aid “homeless children” and “unfranchised and helpless womanhood,” while before the Knights “the oppressed of all nations, the toiling millions of very land have sent up a wailing protest against the monied might, against the gigantic monopoly, against corporated capital” and until the Knights “their appeal has fallen upon hearts of stone and ears of brass. . . . The laboring masses of today are slipping off the bondage of the past. . . .”84 Lease’s interaction with the Knights during the 1880s encouraged her to conclude that some sort of government aid and institutional reform was needed to assist laborers, ideas which had roots in her own experiences with agrarian poverty and commitment to Irish Nationalism and ideas which she would develop more fully as a Progressive reformer during the early twentieth century. She hailed fellow Knights members as the “plumed and helmeted knights of today,” who will conquer monopoly and “go forth on a mission nobler and holier” than the missions of medieval Knights. Combating “the jeering Sampsons of corporation and monopoly” and aiming “to change places with their oppressors,” the Knights of Labor, declared Lease, “call a halt in the march of oppression to rescue not Christ, but to deliver bruised and bleeding humanity.”85 She appreciated the Knights’ calls for the “toiling masses” to gain “a proper share of the wealth,” because she could apply such arguments to her discussions of Irish farmers oppressed by British landowners and American farmers seemingly cheated by the railroads and other corporations.86

Lease also became an associate editor of the Knights’ Journal, a popular and well-known labor publication. In her Journal articles and labor speeches Lease condemned the deplorable and unprotected conditions of workers in America. She most commonly focused upon issues of white “wage slavery” in her labor speeches, and reasoned, “we wiped out slavery and by our tariff laws and national banks began a system of white, wage slavery worse than [African American slavery].” Lease additionally helped to establish the Knights’ Pueblo Colorado Workman while ← 32 | 33 → visiting Colorado’s hot springs in 1889 to restore her heath. Later, in 1890, she became an editor of the labor journal called the Newton Kansas Commoner. Lease was involved in a wide-range of reform activities by the late 1880s, successfully making a name for herself within such reform circles. Others recognized and appreciated her reform work as she eventually earned the prestigious leadership title of Knights’ “master workman.”87 Lease remained proud of her association with the Knights of Labor even after she became a fulltime Populist Party orator, apparently referring to the Knights in the 1890s as “the greatest of all organizations.”88

Lease’s labor activism and disillusionment with the impact of industrialization on agrarian America eventually persuaded her to join the Kansas Union Labor Party in 1888, after being a longtime supporter of the Republican Party. The Kansas Republican Party responded to the Union Labor Party’s challenge by ‘waving the bloody shirt’ and by claiming that their tariff protected American households through bolstering national prosperity.89 Despite evident agricultural economic troubles, many Republican politicians in Kansas or in the Capitol appeared to either misunderstand or ignore farmers’ hardships and the growing split and antagonism between the interests of the metropolis and the nation’s rural agricultural communities. Such politicians discussed the high productivity of agriculture, yet not the myriad of financial issues, like the long-term downward spiral of agricultural prices, that over time forced farmers into deeper debt.90 Farmers who were undergoing a process of political radicalization through their association with the Farmers’ Alliance, an agrarian reform organization formed during the 1880s, and who were seeking political representatives who recognized and addressed agricultural problems turned out to vote for the Union Labor Party during the 1888 election. Upon joining the Union Labor Party, Lease quickly gained respect within the party for her ability to deliver impromptu speeches and thus became one of the most popular speakers at party meetings. Possibly because the state convention crowd was a larger assembly than she had previously addressed, Lease recalled that she was “frightened” during her first Union Labor Party speech yet insisted that “before I had finished that speech I had decided to take up public speaking.” Lease apparently stated: “Whether on the side of God and the people or, the devil and monopolies. Even the most cautious politicians say something is wrong when the rich prairies of Kansas don’t pay. Something is wrong when the tenants are yearly increasing. I thank God I have lived to see the day when the people are beginning to think for themselves and the Union Labor Party is formed.”91 That she had obtained a certain notoriety by that point was evident in the comment made by a local historian a few years later who recorded that “among those who were the object of especial attention were” Lease who “was the observed of all observers.”92

Composed largely of former Greenback Party supporters, farmers, and laborers, the Kansas Union Labor Party held its first convention in 1888, and ← 33 | 34 → nominated Lease as the party’s candidate for Superintendent of Sedgwick County Schools, marking Lease’s formal entrance into party politics. Like the Greenback Party before them, the Union Labor Party was especially concerned with financial issues. Members disliked the late-nineteenth-century contraction in circulating currency accompanied by high interest rates that hurt debtors and benefited bankers. Thus, in addition to addressing issues dear to Lease like women’s suffrage and labor reform, the Union Labor Party’s platform called for the “establishment of a national monetary system in the interest of the producer”; the end of mortgage companies’ monopolistic behaviors; the prohibition of speculative land-purchase practices; and government issuance of low-interest land loans to farmers and workers. Importantly, the Union Labor Party recognized the philosophical and political possibilities of uniting agrarians and labor under one potentially powerful political umbrella. During the September 1888 Union Labor Party convention, Lease expressed satisfaction that the party’s formation signified Kansas farmers’ growing political awareness and desire to eradicate prevalent agricultural hardships.93 The Union Labor Party nominated Lease as their Superintendent of Schools candidate.94 According to one paper referencing Lease’s speeches on behalf of the third party, “Women on the stump are not an inspiring spectacle,” while “Lease’s politics, like woman’s fashions, are greatly modified by times, places, and seasons; and even by simple occasions or the complexion of the crowd—fluctuations that would neither be overlooked nor excused in a man.”95

Though defeated at the polls in 1888, the Union Labor Party continued to struggle for its goals. To that end, it founded the Wichita Independent on November 17, 1888, following the election, and named Lease as an acting editor for this “journal devoted to reform, truth, and justice.” Although Lease quit her editorial duties in March of the following year, she continued to contribute to the paper and was cited in the reform journal intermittently throughout the coming years. Working hard to spread the Union Labor Party’s reformist philosophy in 1888, Lease also helped edit the Kansas Union Labor Press. By 1890, Lease and most Union Labor Party members turned their support to the newly established Kansas Populist Party. Lease’s Union Labor Party experiences nonetheless infused her with a sense of optimism concerning the capacity for third-party reform and likewise provided her with both oratorical and literary training needed for her coming years as a Populist activist.96 She came to regard third-party political agitation as a legitimate and meaningful mechanism to bring about a producers’ democracy. Lease recalled that one of her early well-attended public appearances “was at Kansas City in 1888, where I delivered the address of welcome at the labor conference.” Signifying her radicalization, Lease proclaimed that she “whipped Mr. Powderly” who shared the lecture platform with her, and reportedly “won the day” at the conference when she successfully argued that labor organizations should enter politics, an idea that the Knights of Labor and its president had resolutely opposed since the organization’s ← 34 | 35 → founding. During the late 1880s, Lease surmised that concrete labor and social reform would be realized only through the lobbying efforts of activists within the political realm who were untainted by and outside of the two dominant “old parties.”97

Mary Lease ultimately put her full efforts behind agrarian third-party politics with the hope that in so doing workers would benefit. While the Farmers’ Alliance and the Knights of Labor maintained similar ideological underpinnings, the Alliance, unlike the Knights, was better able to translate its grievances into political efforts that would fully flower with the emergence of the Populist Party in the 1890s. The Knights of Labor moreover severely declined after the 1886 Haymarket riot, which encouraged nativist thinkers to forever associate the Knights with foreign anarchism and radicalism. Farmers linked many of their problems to public and private institutions involved in transportation, currency circulation, credit, and other financial issues, while the Knights’ complaints concerning corporate control of private production were less clearly defined and fit less neatly into the public domain and partisan politics. To garner farmer support on the other hand, the Alliance and agrarian radicals like Lease promoted the concept of a “producers’ democracy” in which noble farmers and laborers were arrayed against bankers, speculators, politicians, and the corporate elite who were categorized as “parasites.” Lease was forward looking in that she accepted industrialization and mass production but also called upon government to protect workers from corporate exploitation as a way to ensure that people equally benefited from the expanding capitalist system. Consequently, Lease first supported the Alliance, then the Union Labor Party, and finally the People’s Party believing these organizations best protected producers by expanding government’s role in curbing corporate abuses, defending workers’ rights, and ensuring an equitable distribution of national wealth.98

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Chapter 3

Mary Lease, Annie Diggs, and the Rise of Radical Agrarian Politics in the Late 1880s–Early 1890s

Following the Union Labor Party’s defeat in the November 1888 elections, Mary Elizabeth Lease turned her attention to a broader agrarian reform agenda. Lease’s experiences with the Union Labor Party encouraged her to value third-party political activism. Lease’s gravitation to farmer politics in Kansas in the 1880s made sense given her family’s repeated failed farming attempts at home and abroad. Part of what made Lease such a charismatic figure within the agrarian reform movement was her very ability to rhetorically translate personal hardships into concrete reform solutions.

Angry over declining commodity prices and their escalating debts during the late 1870s and 1880s, prairie farmers like Lease increasingly accused the federal government of engaging in what she would later describe as a “fraud against the people.” Several issues particularly angered midwestern, western, and southern agricultural communities, namely: a national banking system seemingly biased against agriculture; the removal of Civil War “Greenbacks” from circulation; the apparent unstoppable decline of agricultural prices in a glutted market; government legislative actions ostensibly in favor of railroads and other monopolies; and the demonetization of silver.1 The agricultural bust in Kansas accelerated in 1888 when drought, dust storms, heat, cyclones, and successive blizzards destroyed crops and land values collapsed. Eastern investors thereafter cut the flow of credit to the West by calling in their loans during these successive economic slowdowns. Mary Lease and Kansas farmers could accept yearly crop-yield fluctuations based on unpredictable weather conditions, but vacillations in crop prices that could be influenced or controlled by federal or state policies angered them. Such anger would prompt Lease to champion government regulation of the nation’s economic ← 36 | 37 → markets by the late 1880s, while it pushed other farmers into radical forms of protest.2 Failed farmers like Lease confronted an economic crossroads of sorts following the Civil War with the rapid decline of family farming everywhere. The rise of sharecropping in the South and the industrial revolution and big business capitalism in the East meant that agricultural revenue increasingly went into fewer hands. This capital consolidation process engendered farmers’ sense of helplessness and victimization, ultimately fueling their Populist agrarian anger.

The roots of the boom–bust economic cycle in Kansas and in other midwestern agricultural states, which Lease herself described and charted in many of her public speeches, dated back to at least the American Civil War. Although the 1862 Homestead Act had promised free land to those willing to work and live on the land, Congress frequently gave railroads the best land while speculators subverted the law and claimed much of the most productive farmland for themselves.3 Advertising ‘get-rich-quick’ schemes and promoting the myth of plentitude, various farm journals and railroads distributed promotional literature that stressed the great farming opportunities available in Kansas. Despite western boosters who claimed rain constantly fertilized the prairies, Kansas homesteaders quickly realized that the prairie more closely resembled a desert than the lush Missouri River Valley.4 Economic and environmental factors caused agricultural poverty along with the depopulation of whole counties in arid western Kansas during the 1880s, and thus the Leases failed farming ventures were common prairie experiences. Mortgages constantly reminded farmers of their lack of autonomy. Farmers with fully mortgaged farms were forced to take out chattel mortgages, usually accompanied with high interest rates, on movable personal property like livestock and equipment rather than their farm real estate as security. Victor Murdock, a well-known late-nineteenth-century Kansas Republican newspaper editor, noted that “most of the farmers resolved their miseries into terms of personal helplessness before a mortgage that must be met and farm prices that would not meet it.”5 At every level of agricultural production, distribution, and consumption small family farmers perceived economic inequity if not outright corruption. Chicago grain elevator operators, for instance, profited when Kansas farmers were forced to sell their crops at harvest time during market gluts when prices were low. Farmers believed that elevator operators mislabeled the grades of their crops in order to illegally profit at small farmers’ financial expense. Operators benefited from exclusive contracts with particular railroads that enabled them to charge high prices for crop storage, while railroad monopolies were free to set shipping rates at almost any level they chose.6 These financial problems would eventually encourage Populists like Lease to support cooperative-farming projects and even state-regulated crop storage schemes.

Many late-nineteenth-century agrarians and laborers, including Mary Lease, believed the greatest social evils plaguing America were wealth stratification, the ← 37 | 38 → maldistribution of property, and the exploitation of working farmers and the industrial classes. Class conflict jolted America during the Gilded Age as the nation adjusted to the labor, economic, and agricultural changes associated with the growth, expansion, and ultimate hegemony of modern industrial capitalism. Lease and other angry agrarians believed American society was afflicted by perpetual class warfare in which the “Jay Gould monopolists,” the “monied power,” the “new Slave Power” of “railroad thieves,” the “monopolist kings,” corrupt bankers, unscrupulous British and other “foreign” investors, and “stock-gambling millionaires” were ruining America. The most popular Irish-American newspaper of the time, called the Irish World and Industrial Liberator, frequently published articles with titles like “How Labor is Robbed” that contemplated the many dangers of industrial, monopoly capitalism. For Lease, monopolism was neither natural nor essential to capitalism since monopolies in her view sprung forth after business competition and economic discrimination went unchecked.7 She argued that a redistribution of wealth and property was necessary to counter the wealth and power centralizing trends plaguing America. So according to Lease, many Populists, and American labor reformers, the “land robbers” and the “monied men” who controlled property remained the central social problem debilitating the nation. “The people are at bay,” threatened Lease, “let the blood hounds of money who have dogged them so far beware.”8 One paper succinctly summarized her strong views by insisting that “Mrs. Lease hates Jay Gould.”9 With the American economy developing so rapidly it naturally triggered great debate over the pace of the growth, meaning should the money supply grow or be limited. Borrowers and those suffering from low prices on their products, like farmers, wanted a larger money supply believing that more money in circulation would inflate prices and reduce their real borrowing costs. The “sound money” people, including creditors, had the opposite interest and consequently farmers and the “monied power” maintained competing interests.10 Widespread social discontent stemming from these concerns took the form of bloody strikes and labor conflicts during the 1870s and 1880s, followed by labor transformations and radical farmer protests during the Populist political crusade of the 1890s.

Within the Kansas political realm, farmers increasingly believed that Republican legislators, representing the dominant incumbent political party in the state, manipulated local and national economies at the expense of “the people” by granting northeastern financial institutions and corporations, particularly railroad monopolies, large monetary and land subsidies in various midwestern localities. Corporations were also afforded legal protections when, in 1886, the Supreme Court held in Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad that a corporation was a person under the Fourteenth Amendment and thus was “entitled to its protection.”11 Frustration would prompt Lease, along with thousands of other Kansas farmers and workers fearful of unrestrained capitalist growth, to demand government ← 38 | 39 → regulation and oversight of the nation’s economic markets in an effort to protect “the people.”12 In many ways Lease and other midwestern agrarian radicals regarded the new capitalist economy as fostering a new type of sectionalism, or as one paper said of Lease: “She wants a Mason and Dixon’s line to divide the west from the east.”13 So it was the economic turmoil consuming Gilded Age America along with her personal experiences that nurtured Lease’s radicalism to the point of propelling her into the agrarian third-party political arena.

In response to the escalating agricultural problems of the 1870s, which only intensified during the 1880s and 1890s, farmers turned to the Grange for guidance and support. The Grange, also known as the “Patrons of Husbandry,” was founded in 1867 by a Department of Agriculture clerk working in Washington, DC. A national network composed of locally-based organizations devoted to agrarian advocacy, Grangers aimed to educate farmers about better agricultural techniques and products in an effort to spur agricultural productivity and promote farmer dignity and self-reliance. Many of the organization’s founders, including its first president, Oliver Hudson Kelley, came from farming backgrounds. These Grange founders sought to uplift and support isolated farmers by bringing educational, cultural, and social programs found in urban areas to rural farm households. They worked to establish an organization to represent farmers’ needs in the same way unions lobbied for industrial workers. At first the organization functioned like a fraternal order, concentrating on social and educational issues, but as local and state Granges formed during the agrarian economic downturn of the early 1870s, the Grange focused on economic issues and non-partisan political resolutions to combat agrarian poverty. For instance, Grange membership boomed in Kansas during 1873 and 1874 as farmers there confronted a grasshopper invasion that destroyed their crops, while they simultaneously faced generalized hardships brought on by an intense national economic depression. As midwestern and Plains farmers watched corn and wheat prices steadily decline during the Panic of 1873, they increasingly turned to their local Granges for assistance. By 1874, Kansas claimed a local Grange for every 88 people engaged in farming and three-quarters of the state’s farming population joined the Grange. The Grangers lobbied for an expanded credit system and railroad regulation, attacked monopolies, emphasized the importance of family, and recognized the value of both men’s and women’s roles on the farm.14

During this turbulent economic period, the National Grange adopted an anti-monopoly platform, particularly reproving railroad monopolies. Integral to Grangers’ opposition to monopolistic businesses was their anger over the so-called middlemen of agricultural production, such as commodity exchange agents and grain elevator operators. The Grange consequently called for the regulation of railroad transportation and grain elevator operators’ rates as well as cooperative economic initiatives that could assist farmers in generating sufficient credit. The ← 39 | 40 → Grange’s cooperative stores aimed to aid farmers economically, mainly by assisting them in purchasing necessary agricultural supplies and tools. During the Grange movement’s peak in the mid 1870s, Grangers captured several midwestern state legislatures, and subsequently adopted the so-called Granger laws that regulated railroad and grain elevator operators’ rates and established state railroad regulatory commissions. In a major victory for the Grange, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld these Granger laws in 1876 in Munn v. Illinois by ruling that grain warehouses or any like private business involved in serving the public interest could be regulated by the state. The case began after an Illinois court found Munn, a partner in a Chicago grain warehouse, guilty of violating a state law that set maximum rates for grain storage. Munn appealed, arguing that Illinois’s maximum grain storage rate law essentially appropriated property without due process of the law and thus infringed upon his Fourteenth Amendment rights. In delivering the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, Chief Justice Morrison Waite upheld the Granger laws, including the Illinois law, ruling that businesses could be regulated in order to protect the public’s general welfare.15 Lease later echoed Grangers’ calls for greater government regulation of industry and trade, though her fierce rhetoric and combative tone were generally absent from the more traditional social uplift language utilized by Grange lawyers and organizers.

Charles and Mary Lease never participated directly in the Grange movement, but Grangers’ influence within midwestern farming communities encouraged residents, and probably Mary, to think in newly politicized ways about farmer cooperation. Importantly for Mary’s political future, the Grange’s social organization formally admitted women on an equal basis with men, meaning female members could vote and hold office within the organization like their male counterparts. To receive a charter, a local Grange had to enroll nine female members for every thirteen male members. Women maintained substantial influence within local Granges in part because the National Grange emphasized the importance of the family. The National Grange organization argued that combating corporate monopolies, such as railroad companies, required farm families to work together and create agricultural cooperatives and farmer-run stores. The Grange’s emphasis upon the family and the domestic economy provided women with organizational opportunities within local Granges, but some women served as delegates and officers to the national organization. This helped to establish a precedent of female agrarian activism in the Midwest. Although women often maintained traditional roles within local Granges, such as event organizers for family social activities, women freely and publicly debated issues at local meetings. Women were permitted to deliver speeches at Grange sponsored events, while others wrote for Grange newspapers and other rural, agricultural papers. Many local Granges endorsed women’s suffrage and the temperance movement in the 1870s, which encouraged some Granger women to join such reform organizations in the ← 40 | 41 → late nineteenth century. One member remarked that the Grange “elevates us poor trodden down females,” while the Kansas Grange supported women’s suffrage starting in 1874. The Grange also encouraged women to form their own committees on women’s work, home economics, and female-centered social activities. Women in western states claimed that their participation in the Grange movement offered them community respect, relief from isolation, leadership experience, and opportunities to express their support for prohibition and women’s suffrage. The Grange likewise gave women forums to campaign against the drudgery that they believed ruined farm women’s physical and mental health. The Grange’s relative gender egalitarianism established a precedent of female agrarian activism adopted and expanded by the Farmer’s Alliance movement of the 1880s and the Populist Party of the 1890s. Due to its emphasis upon economic issues and its respect for the family and the dual roles of men and women on the farm, the Grange provided rudimentary lessons in egalitarianism for western women, and presumably for Mary Lease as well, that were not modeled and observed in male-dominated partisan party politics.16 One leading female Populist from Kansas apprised the situation correctly when she wrote that Kansas “furnished by far the largest quota of active, aggressive women, inasmuch as Kansas was the theatre where the initial act of the great labor drama was played.”17

After failing to alleviate farmers’ economic difficulties, the Grange movement by the early 1880s began to wane. In its place rose the Farmers’ Alliance, a group founded in Lampasas County, Texas in the early 1870s. Kansas farmers began flocking to the Alliance starting in 1887, and its membership quickly boomed. Whereas the Grange’s founding principles generally encouraged the development of “a better and higher manhood and womanhood,” the Farmers’ Alliance espoused direct cooperative action and legislative initiative to combat disempowerment and poverty.18 Although she was not part of a farming family by the mid-1880s, and thus ineligible to become an official member of the Farmers’ Alliance, Lease became a popular and regular speaker at Alliance meetings, picnics, and rallies held in the late 1880s and 1890s. She immediately drew crowds in Kansas and elsewhere by the thousands.19 Her surge to fame also quickly drew detractors. One such critic claimed that “the alliance papers are complaining of Mrs. Lease, and asking who authorizes her to travel over the country, and speak for the Kansas alliance. In a little while Mrs. Lease will be out of an alliance job; the men are becoming tired of this scolding old woman.”20 Lease probably joined forces with Alliance crusaders because of her previous failed farming experiences and her related fears and anger concerning agricultural poverty. Her family’s Irish heritage and link to Irish farming reform movements along with her deep-seated mistrust of oligarchic powers such as the British, the “slavocracy,” and railroad corporations were also factors that most likely pushed her toward Alliance activism. Lease helped to establish organizations related to and supportive of the Alliance like the Farmers’ Protective ← 41 | 42 → Association, which incorporated lawyers and other professionals into a lobbying group that supported agrarian reform. Unlike the Grange, which declared itself “nonpolitical” and discouraged partisan pronouncements even while encouraging its individual members to become politically active, the Farmers’ Alliance maintained a more politicized disposition.21 This posture appeared to appeal to Mary Lease who, despite her radical legacy, always maintained a strong faith in the constitutional electoral process and government system.

Women gained recognition and assumed positions of organizational responsibility within the growing Western Farmers’ Alliance because the organization challenged male-dominated mainstream partisan politics and instead established a non-partisan, moralistic, gender-mixed, and family-based organization.22 The Republican press feared the potential independent political power of the Farmers’ Alliance and thus exaggerated the extent to which the Alliance was controlled by women to mock it, a strategy that both Republicans and Democrats would readily employ during the later Populist insurgency in Kansas. The Republican Topeka Daily Capital, for instance, wrote that “the Farmers’ Alliance of Kansas was largely controlled by women in 1888, the farmers’ wives surpassing their husbands in the work of organizing against the old parties. What with prayers and psalm singing this campaign of the Farmers’ Alliance savored not a little of the earnest gravity of Convenanterism.” The Alliance, however, did attract many politically ambitious women such as Lease who assumed some leadership responsibilities within their local organizations.23

The Farmers’ Alliance promoted many of the reforms championed by the Grangers, but the Alliance also expanded and more effectively advertised the agrarian reform agenda throughout the nation and within legislative houses. Along with environmental factors and persistently high debts that troubled farmers, Alliance members complained about several additional economic issues destroying agriculture’s profitability, including high freight rates for shipping produce East; usurious mortgage interest rates as high as 18 percent; the monopolistic practices of grain elevator operators and middlemen; the long-term deflationary currency cycle that led to falling economic prices over a 30-year period; and a political system that ignored farmers’ plight. As one sympathetic reporter stated: “No crime is greater in the Farmers’ Alliance code than the crime of foreclosing a mortgage in order to satisfy a just debt.” Following two decades of declining crop prices, farmers’ profits from a bushel of corn fell to only 10 cents in 1889, down from 45 cents a bushel in 1870, and less than it cost prairie farmers to produce it. The fees of middlemen, salesmen, and railroads further stripped farmers’ profits, and imperiled their future economic progress. Midwestern farmers went into debt to buy needed farm equipment, but, at the same time, the steady decline of commodity prices further reduced and impaired farmers’ economic circumstances. In Kansas, farmers unsuccessfully appealed to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad ← 42 | 43 → Corporation to lower their shipping rates.24 The railroad in turn would become a lighting rod and a political target for Mary Lease as the Santa Fe was local and thus a tangible enemy to desperate farmers. One paper simply concluded that she “hates railroads,” while later claiming Lease viewed Kansas as “in the grasp of the railroads.”25 With its membership continuing to expand in 1889 and 1890, the Kansas Farmers’ Alliance also worked to disseminate agricultural information to farmers concerning new seeds, fertilizers, and farming techniques. The Alliance attempted to combine farmers’ resources in order to purchase farm implements and supplies in bulk and at wholesale prices. Probably most significantly, the Farmers’ Alliance helped farmers gain dignity and recognize their potential power, notably their political weight, as a unified force through their cooperative organizational efforts and legislative lobbying activities.26

Along with other Kansans, Lease underwent a process of radicalization during the 1870s and 1880s while participating in agrarian and labor reform movements that emphasized economic issues and promoted organizational and ideological egalitarianism. Through her participation in the WCTU, the women’s suffrage movement, the Irish national movement, the Farmers’ Alliance, and the labor movement, Lease, along with other reformers, began to breakdown nineteenth-century gender norms and the supremacy of laissez-faire ideology in the 1880s, and such trends only accelerated during the turbulent 1890s. The Farmers’ Alliance, for instance, ensured that women were welcomed to meetings and maintained some leadership positions within sub-Alliances. Thus, by 1890, women composed approximately 30 percent of the Kansas Alliance’s membership, and some 30,000 to 50,000 farm women joined the Alliance.27 Lease directly challenged conventional notions concerning women’s apolitical, submissive nature as well as classical economic theories relating to government policy, calling instead for women’s political rights and a more activist state. Her reformist efforts on behalf of farmers, workers, women, and the Irish throughout the 1870s and 1880s laid the foundation for her radicalism that would find full expression in her 1890’s Populist Party activities.

From the spring of 1889 to the winter of 1889–1890, more than 75,000 Kansans joined the Farmers’ Alliance, and by the end of 1890, Kansas had 130,000 farmers enrolled in the Alliance. The Alliance established agrarian social networks and cooperative systems in which farmers sold crops together to negotiate better prices, but the Alliance did not act as an explicitly political organization. While the Kansas Farmers’ Alliance provided an arena for prairie farmers to voice their concerns, reformers like Lease believed that only an overtly political institution could translate agrarian grievances into concrete legislative reforms. Reacting to these concerns, Kansas Alliance state president Benjamin Clover called a convention on March 25, 1890, to consider the possibility of creating a political party organized around Alliance goals. Advocating the abolishment of “party lines,” ← 43 | 44 → the Alliance members promised to “cast our votes for candidates of the people, for the people, and by the people.” The Alliance’s convention adjourned after Lease and her fellow activists scheduled a meeting to be held in Topeka during June 1890 that would work to establish an official third party in Kansas.28

Among those present at the March convention was well-respected Farmers’ Alliance leader Annie L. Diggs. Writers frequently compared Lease and Diggs, with one writing insisting that Diggs was “a modest looking woman, who presents a striking contrast to Mrs. Lease.”29 Although Diggs was complimented for her “fighting qualities,” she was never described as vindictive or combative, the way that Lease was portrayed by the opposition press. Diggs “traces her ancestry in the direct line to General John Stark, of Revolutionary fame,” reported one paper, and “she has certainly inherited his fighting qualities.” “She entered the field to fight for political and personal independence and equality.”30 Like Lease, Diggs involved herself in a variety of reform efforts or, as one paper explained, “is consecrated to all sorts of reforms,” but concentrated her greatest efforts on women’s rights, agrarian reform, and education. Diggs’s father was a Frenchman and lawyer named Cornelius La Porte, while her mother was a “Thomas of Revolutionary stock.” Her parents moved from New Jersey to London, Canada where Diggs was born and when she was two years old they moved back to New Jersey. She traveled to Kansas in 1873 at age 19 to accept a position in a music store as she was fond of music and, according to one report, could have been a “professional pianist” had her hands not been “too small.” She married A. S. Diggs who had a position in the post office in Lawrence. Her public career began in the early 1880s when she became a lay Unitarian preacher in Lawrence, Kansas. She published several articles in the religious press that attracted wide attention, while she addressed the annual convention of the Free Religious Association held in Boston in 1881 on “Liberalism in the West.” For a year or two she remained a resident of Boston writing for various papers there as well as some located in Kansas including the Topeka Commonwealth. In Boston, she was closely identified with Anna Garland Spencer, Kate Gannatt Wells, Frederick Hinckley and others in promoting Unitarianism. Upon returning to the Kansas prairie, she joined the Prohibition Party, though she had already been active in the WCTU for years, and utilized her voice and pen in the advocacy of the party’s principles. In 1889, she attended the national convention of the Farmers’ Alliance and immediately devoted herself to the cause of farmers. When the Kansas Populist Party formed she became an active member, gaining much fame as the leading editor of the party’s paper, The Advocate, and for following Republican Senator John Ingalls through the Sixth congressional district during the 1890 campaign in order to rebut his speeches.31 Annie Diggs would become second only to Mary Lease in terms female farmer activist fame in Gilded Age Kansas. ← 44 | 45 →

The Farmers’ Alliances in the West, Midwest, and South continued to grow during the late 1880s, even electing several candidates to Congress and state legislatures in the South and Southwest, which heartened Lease, Diggs, and other agrarian reformers. Alliance members in Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas decided, however, to move a step beyond the Farmers’ Alliances’ lobbying efforts by establishing a political party that would support and implement the Alliances’ reform goals. During the summer of 1890, Alliance members in several states organized such a party, known as the People’s Party but commonly referred to as the Populist Party. An important step in pushing agrarian activists toward party organizing occurred earlier in December 1889 when the Southern and Northern Farmers’ Alliances met in St. Louis to articulate their vision of and goals for America. The “St. Louis platform” adopted there provided the basic ideological framework for the subsequent Populist agenda. The St. Louis platform called for several reforms, including government ownership and operation of the railroad, telegraph, and telephone industries; the abolition of national banks; the implementation of a “subtreasury plan,” which aimed to supply low-interest or no-interest federal loans to farmers to free them from dependence on bankers; the direct election of United States Senators and members of the federal judiciary; prohibitions on land ownership by foreigners; a graduated income tax; the free and unlimited coinage of silver and gold; and the establishment of federally guaranteed postal savings banks.32 The St. Louis platform succinctly outlined the goals of the agrarian-labor reform movement and ultimately the Populist Party.

By the late 1880s, Lease was clearly immersed in the diverse American reform movement, committed to a broad range of reforms ranging from education to women’s rights to agrarian reform. Consequently, she increasingly gained attention as a public speaker, both positive and negative and particularly for her speeches delivered at meetings of the Kansas Equal Suffrage Association and at local temperance meetings. She gained a reputation among farmers and women’s rights activists as a highly individualistic, self-reliant woman whose voice and presence transfixed audiences. According to one supportive contemporary in 1886, Lease was an “able” speaker who “spoke entertainingly.” Opponents of her reform proposals, on the other hand, referred to Lease as a “dragon” or as a Satan figure and insisted that “she manifests her disposition to annihilate anyone who dares to oppose her.” Whether endorsing or denigrating Lease, the Kansas press consistently recorded her activities and statements and ultimately helped Lease by popularizing her causes.33 If Lease was gaining considerable statewide notoriety in the 1880s, she would soon garner extensive national attention and press coverage in the 1890s.

Convening on June 12, 1890 in Topeka’s Representative Hall with approximately 250 delegates present, Lease and other reformers founded the Kansas Populist Party. In addition to the Farmers’ Alliance delegates on hand, there ← 45 | 46 → were representatives from the Knights of Labor, the Farmers’ Mutual Benefit Association, the Grange, single-taxers, and other reformers. After endorsing the national Farmers’ Alliance’s St. Louis platform, the convention resolved to put forth a “People’s Party” slate for the 1890 elections. The party held its nominating convention on August 13 and named John F. Willits of Jefferson County as its candidate for governor. The Topeka convention was clandestine and journalists were excluded through the Populists’ use of secret handshakes, grips, and passwords, although several reporters must have circumvented security as the local non-Populist press ran stories about the convention.34 Organizing committees were created at the convention, and Lease was appointed to serve on the committee responsible for the seventh congressional district.35 Speaking at the convention, Lease attempted to rally support and energy for the newly established Kansas Populist Party:

Let us unite prohibitionists and resubmissionists [women’s suffrage advocates], Republicans and Democrats to stamp out this unholy monster, the money power. Let our motto be more money and less misery. We have not only the money power of New York, but the money power of London and Amsterdam to fight. Forget party affiliations in the past, forget moral issues of the present, in this great struggle for our little ones. . . . Tyranny, usary, autocracy and plutocracy shall fade away like the mists of the morning. We are depending upon the votes of freedmen for our success—votes of men who will not be bought or sold. Unite friends and brothers. When dissension comes into our ranks, let us unite hearts and hands; the conflict is for liberty, life and lands and the flag of our union forever.36

Lease’s address aimed to coalesce different interest groups and transcend partisanship by focusing exclusively upon economic issues that she believed ultimately affected all Americans. Her speeches generally attempted to connect farmers’ and workers’ amorphous frustrations to political activism. She ultimately helped to stimulate a class consciousness in farmers that would eventually persuade them to join the Populist Party.

Recognizing her tremendous oratorical abilities after listening to her speeches at one of their founding conventions in Topeka during June 1890, the Kansas Populist Party asked Mary Lease to officially lecture on behalf of their new political organization in preparation for the fall elections. Lease accepted the offer and began traveling throughout Kansas as a stump speaker rallying voters for the third party. She encouraged listeners to translate their evident rage over economic desperation into concrete action in the form of Populist Party political participation. Although the Populist Party disseminated information concerning its activities and goals through organizational meetings, picnics, parades, songs, print literature, and person-to-person conversations, hired lecturers remained the mainstay of the Populists’ political campaigns at every level and in every state in which the party organized. Consequently, Lease delivered at least 160 speeches in ← 46 | 47 → Kansas and elsewhere during the 1890 campaign alone. She would later travel throughout the nation campaigning for the national Populist Party during the presidential elections of 1892 and 1896, gaining a reputation as one of America’s leading and most dynamic speakers.37 Lease’s oratorical skills and her ability to clearly and succinctly communicate the Populist message helped to transform the Populist movement from a local, grassroots, unstructured protest to a nationally organized political party.

Agrarians like Lease joined the Populists’ political and social revolt as a way to counter what they perceived as the excesses, oligarchic control, political manipulation, and corruption of big businesses and financial institutions in the late nineteenth century. Kansas became a hotbed for the Populist revolt during the 1890s as farmers there struggled with wide-ranging problems such as environmental crop destruction, the decline of agricultural prices, railroad and grain elevator operators’ high rates, political marginalization, the boom–bust economic cycle, and generalized economic hardship. Lease quickly attracted and energized listeners during these depression years because of her ability to define farmers’ financial frustrations in rather simplistic, straight-forward terms. During one Populist Party campaign speech, Lease allegedly informed her audience that “the most tremendous social and political revolution” was sweeping over the nation. Commenting on such speeches, a Republican critic insisted that Lease “was sometimes a bit of a demagogue” who knew less than he about the fundamental causes of the Populist uprising, but because “it was an uprising, she rode the waves” and “flashed across Kansas in that day of turmoil.” After an interview with Lease, another reporter said Lease impressed him “as one of those radical, strong, warm natures which feels and has impulses rather than thoughts. She can see a wrong and feel an injury quickly, but would be slow and far from sure in her remedies. Her mind is untrained, and while displaying plenty of a certain sort of power, is illogical, lacks sequence and scatters like a 10-guage gun.”38 One poem insisted that Lease’s “logic was light,” but “her tongue was a fright.”39 Lease’s speeches were not infused with cogent economic theories, as she was not a scholar, nor were they peppered with specific details about the complexities of farmer discontent, but these omissions made little difference to her supporters. She was able to translate, distill, and convey abstract ideas about interest rates, stocks, financial capital, and corporate trade into a clear and comprehensible message. When Lease lobbied for issues, ranging from anti-monopoly legislation to women’s suffrage, she typically divided the world into two clear, distinct categories: the oppressors versus the oppressed, or the good versus the bad. Speaking of Lease, Populist contemporary Annie Diggs said “hers is a nature which compels rather than persuades.”40 Lease “is not the sort of woman,” wrote another contemporary, “to be shelved without a protest,” so listeners always knew exactly where she stood on any given issue.41 “Lease is a forcible woman,” wrote the Wichita Daily Eagle, “and of much more ability than the average legislator ← 47 | 48 → elected.”42 The uncompromisingly radical nature of her speeches attracted Populists looking for someone or something to blame for farmer and worker suffering and likewise gave her political opponents plenty of rhetorical ammunition with which to publicly attack her. One political opponent concluded that her message simply consisted of “a tirade against the old parties and contained no political argument.”43

Throughout the Populists’ 1890 campaign in Kansas, both supporters and opponents agreed that Lease’s oratory was extraordinary. Lease was affectionately dubbed as a “heroine,” the “Joan of the Dry Lands,” the “People’s Joan of Arc,” the “female Old Hickory,” and as “Our Queen Mary” by supporters.44 Victor Murdock, one of the founders of Wichita and a prominent member of the Kansas Republican Party, vividly described Lease’s eloquent and spellbinding voice:

The man and woman who did not halt in wonder at the sound of her voice had no music in his soul. I have heard no speaking voice in my time to equal hers, in man or woman. It was contralto, rich, even mellow, of a quality beyond that possessed by any of the great actresses of my knowledge. It was, like her mind, normally tranquil and authoritative, but it could be elastically responsive to the needs of humor and of scorn. She could command an audience of men with the ease of a queen with courtiers; she could stir their risibles if she desired, and she could halve an opponent with a single slashing sentence.45

Another contemporary claimed that Lease “had a voice like the roaring of many waters, and her words seemed to have a hypnotic effect on her audience.” The Chicago Herald insisted that “her magnetism and popularity as a speaker are unique and wonderful.” The Clarion Breeze of Johnsonburg, Pennsylvania ranked Lease as “one of the world’s greatest orators,” while another observer argued that Lease’s voice could “win her audience over if any one can.” Countless accounts authored by political supporters and opponents alike described Lease’s spellbinding, exceptional voice and charismatic delivery. The historical record clearly attests that Lease possessed an extraordinary gift for oratory.46

Thus it was of no coincidence that perhaps the most common gendered attack leveled against Lease involved describing her voice as “masculine,” like that of a “man-woman,” and seemingly “more male than female,” resembling a “war whoop.” By routinely discussing Lease’s “man-like” traits, particularly her masculine voice, her adversaries inadvertently acknowledged that Lease was an important political actor.47 Lease’s “masculine voice howls” noted an observer, while another editorial insisted that Lease’s oratory exhibited “a strength in her endurance which is not the possession of many of her sex.”48

One reporter discussed Lease’s “strong man’s voice,” whereas another offered her a backhanded compliment by stating that her voice had an “entire absence of that femininity of voice, which so often makes the expounders of women’s rights doctrines ridiculous on the platform.” In an article noting how several people ← 48 | 49 → mistook her for a man, a reporter said of Lease that “as every one knows her voice is noted for its masculinity.”49 In describing Lease, another paper wrote: “In person, voice and diction she is strong, to degree almost of masculinity. She is intelligent and well read, and her speeches were in the main logical as well as forceful.”50 After Lease explained in an interview that she believed her political work did not “unsex me,” a journalist still assessed that “Lease somewhat unsexed herself by her indulgence in turbulent and inflammatory discourse” when discussing “grave and serious governmental problems.”51 Lease’s voice and demeanor deviated from the “true womanhood” ideal as Collier’s Cyclopedia informed readers that women should remain quiet, and further advised:

Remember in conversation that a voice ‘gentle and low’ is, above all other extraneous acquirements, ‘an excellent thing in a woman.’ There is a certain distinct but subdued tone of voice which is peculiar to only well-bred persons. A loud voice is both disagreeable and vulgar. It is better to err by the use of too low rather than too loud a tone.52

It is unsurprising that Lease’s voice stirred opponents’ intense resentments and gendered mockery because her oratorical gifts were routinely quoted and commended by political supporters. After delivering a two-hour lecture in Wichita that “had a wonderful effect upon her audience,” the reporter concluded: “she is without a doubt one of the best orators, not only in Kansas, but in the United States, and one of the most convincing, carrying conviction to the dullest and most prejudiced.”53 “There can be no denial,” argued the Topeka State Journal, “that Mrs. Lease upon the political platform or stump, uttering invectives more than masculine, and appealing to the brutal passions of the mob, rather than to the calm sense of reasoning men and women, must be treated the same as any other mob leader, male or female. She cannot shelter herself behind her sex while appealing to blood thirsty passions and inciting lawless riot.”54

Given the notoriety of her oratory and the consistency with which the press discussed her voice albeit in idealized gendered terms, it was unsurprising that opponents launched unrelenting, often hyperbolic comments about her “mouth.” One writer wondered: “can’t some public benefactor gag Mrs. Lease?” Another concluded that “Mrs. Lease is known as an ‘Amazon’ on account of the width of her mouth.” Referring to the Lawrence Record’s reference to Lease as “the Amazon of Kansas,” the Topeka Daily Capital further assessed that “the Amazon has a mouth 150 miles wide.” “If Mrs. Lease had opened her mouth,” jibed the Wichita Daily Eagle, “some of the late blizzard might have been absorbed, and the early vegetable[s] escaped being frost bitten.” Referencing the Civil War, the Fort Scott Monitor wondered: “It is now fully five days since bleeding Kansas has heard from Mrs. Lease. Is it possible that the cruel war is over?” “If the Populists expect to keep Mrs. Lease from talking,” quipped the Topeka State Journal, “they must have ← 49 | 50 → some miracle working power that no one suspected them of having.” In sum, wrote one partisan, “Mrs. Lease has apparently adopted the excellent axiom: Speak twice before you think.”55

That Mary Lease inspired agrarian protests and roused class resentments brought her notoriety, but that she was a female orator remains particularly significant. If gender ideals such as the domestic ideology continued to act as strong societal forces, then how and why was Mary Lease, as a woman, able to enter the political center stage in the late nineteenth century? Lease used her Populist campaign platform to discuss her party’s proposed reforms, such as railroad rate regulation, wage and hours laws, and tax and election reform, yet she also used this stage to campaign for women’s equality and women’s suffrage. The Populist movement itself had very little to say about the status of women in America. Likewise, the movement never contemplated the interconnected problems of gender and economic inequity nor sought to substantially incorporate women’s rights issues into its vision for reforming America. Yet the Populist movement attracted support from those seeking to challenge the political and economic elite, which might have meant, by extension or consequence, a concurrent challenge to entrenched class and gender orders. The Granger movement and the Farmers’ Alliance movement of the Midwest and West, both of which were cooperative organizations that acted as precursors to the People’s Party, had traditionally encouraged local female membership, political partisanship, campaign work, and even organizational leadership and thus profoundly influenced the evolution of gender dynamics within the third party. The Republican press had previously espoused and of course intentionally exaggerated the ubiquitous political power of women in the Farmers’ Alliance, though women like Lease and Diggs had assumed some leadership responsibilities within the agrarian movement.56 These politicized women soon turned their energies to the Populist Party in order to join and support a movement they believed would reform a political system that ignored the plight of farmers.

With its political emphasis turned toward economic reform, the 1890’s Populist Party did offer a relatively egalitarian vision of men’s and women’s roles and provided women with a more hospitable and socially equitable environment than did the dominant Republican and Democratic Parties. The Populists’ skepticism regarding the limitless advantages and assured upward mobility that hard work, discipline, and morality would bring to all individuals helped to break down dominant views concerning the validity of laissez-faire government policies. At the same time, Populists challenged middle-class cultural values generally, including those related to gender, and consequently offered women more significant roles than did the “old parties.” Lease and her allies in fact defended her political activities by employing ideas regarding women’s moral authority and by arguing that the “political mismanagement” of the “old parties” dominated by men had led the ← 50 | 51 → nation into a state of decay, corruption, and decadence. Thus, they claimed that Populist men and women alike needed to purify and reform the political realm. Articulating the connection between politics, female purity, and the home, or the public and private spheres, Lease contended that “politics” is “the foundation of the home,” and therefore “women have resolutely entered that domain of politics and bid fair to maintain there as else where, her standard: ‘For God and Home and Native Land.’”57 On the one hand, the Populists turned away from the trappings of traditional middle-class gender ideology; on the other hand, they used these same conventional views regarding female domesticity to allow for and even champion Lease as a woman in politics. “Women have been playing a large part in the campaigns of Kansas since the advent of the Populists,” analyzed the Topeka Daily Capital. “They have been more prominent than have been the masculine portion of the orators and they are decidedly more in demand. Of course Mrs. Lease is easily the first of the company of women politicians as she was the earliest in the field, and many of those who have followed her have been simply imitators.”58 The Populist movement’s unique gender dynamics coupled with Lease’s charismatic personality enabled Lease to penetrate the male-dominated political realm to an unprecedented extent. There Lease was even able to garner support for her women’s rights ideas that she presented in her well-attended Populist campaign speeches during the 1890s.59

Mary Lease assumed a central role within the Populist Party’s hierarchy as a political lecturer, and both supporters and opponents throughout the nation continued to agree that Lease’s oratory was essentially unrivaled. Populist broadsides advertised her upcoming speaking engagements by announcing that she had a “tongue tipped with eloquence.” A contemporary claimed that Lease “had a voice like the roaring of many waters, and her words seemed to have a hypnotic effect on her audience.” The Chicago Herald insisted that “her magnetism and popularity as a speaker are unique and wonderful.” A Pennsylvania newspaper ranked Lease as “one of the world’s greatest orators,” while another observer argued that Lease’s voice could “win her audience over if any one can.” Partisan newspapers acknowledged the captivating nature of her oratory.60 Moreover, whether endorsing Lease by praising her “able” and “entertaining” speeches or denigrating her by referring to her as a “dragon,” or even as a satanic figure, the press consistently recorded her political orations, which ultimately helped to popularize her and her many causes.61 These compliments or criticisms of Lease’s oratory suggested that oratorical success had certain gendered parameters that equated “good” public oratory with masculine sounds and manly traits. Supporters attributed what in nineteenth-century terms would have been masculine characteristics to Lease when praising her lecturing style, indicating that she spoke in a “forcible and logical style” and exhibited “physical endurance” during her lengthy speeches.62 According to one observer, “Mrs. Lease on the platform is ← 51 | 52 → masculine, and she exhibits a strength in her endurance which is not the possession of many of her sex,” while another writer noted that “her voice is rather masculine and her energy that of an athlete.”63

If Lease was the orator, her compatriot Annie Diggs was the writer. Though labeled as “a very plain spoken woman,” Diggs nonetheless gained popularity and respect as a reporter-writer for the Populist Party’s leading newspaper called The Advocate.64 She authored several biographies, including “A Study of Mrs. Nation: The Responsibility of Topeka Women,” as well as flattery history of Jerry Simpson’s Populist political career.65 Diggs was actively involved in the Women’s Social Science Club of Kansas and Western Missouri. She specifically worked on the committee on National Science and wrote extensively about such topics as “silk culture.” She published various articles in The Daily Journal of Lawrence, Kansas, and in such articles she advocated for education and relief to the needy, and wrote articles concerning the history of Kansas.66 One of her most effective and witty writings advocated for women’s rights in a quietly sarcastic manner. In her sardonically entitled article called “‘Not Farmer’s Wives,’” she stated: “When the announcement of a forthcoming paper to be called the Farmer’s Wife was made, some funny man of the press sent out the following item: ‘the Farmer’s Wife is to be edited by Mrs. Livermore, Mrs. Lease, and Mrs. Diggs, not one of these ladies is a farmer’s wife.’” Diggs was appalled by the “stupidity of the person who penned it.” She continued: “In the case of the farmer-wives, nothing is easier or more natural for them after the washing, ironing, baking, scrubbing, mending, darning, dress-making, shirt-making, fruit-canning, jelly-making, house-cleaning, churning and a few other little chores are all done, than just to slick up and run into town and edit a newspaper. Of course farmers wives don’t care to read or learn about anything except that which they learn by practical experience in their farm life. The only things of interest or value to them are new receipts [recipes] for soft soap making and directions for decorating mop handles. Hence it is quite preposterous for Mrs. Livermore and other women to undertake to interest farmer’s wives.”67

In contrast to Annie Diggs’s more academic approach to reform, Mary Lease used evangelist-style, emotional speeches to stir listeners and rouse their anger over the seemingly ubiquitous “money power” in America. Her speeches more closely resembled religious revival oratory than any sort of constrained academic, political language, prompting opponents to mock that she encouraged chaos and “hollering crowds.” As an orator Lease quickly earned a reputation for her ability to elicit an emotional, almost religious, response from her audiences. In fact, Lease viewed her political activities as a religious crusade. Linking Christianity and Populism, Lease argued that the Populists “offer the only solution of conflicting ills and existing problems; their demands are religious as well as political, and every man who accepts the teachings of the divine and gentle Master, must believe in their principles.”68 Lease related the crucifixion of Jesus to farmers’ mortgage ← 52 | 53 → indebtedness, which effectively dramatized her cause and imbued her listeners with a sense that they were crusading for a righteous cause. She sprinkled her speeches with phrases from the Bible. In one such speech, Lease stated:

Every church in the land should be turned into a soup house or a poor house until there are no more poor. Eighteen hundred years ago the long haired barefooted tramp, Jesus Christ, came teaching the strange doctrine that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven. If he should come in the same guise now, and teaching the same doctrine he would be driven from the portals of the churches.69

Consequently, some of Lease’s opponents denounced her for creating her “self-styled evangelist . . . new faith.” Nevertheless, Lease’s ability to link the Populist movement to a religious crusade enabled her to legitimize the agrarian revolt and simultaneously attract Populist Party voters. Her emotional, revivalistic oratorical style paralleled the techniques utilized by nineteenth-century itinerant ministers, while Populist camp meetings resembled antebellum religious revivals.70 It was Lease’s focus upon economic issues along with her exceptional, almost ministerial, oratorical abilities that enabled her to move into the male political realm to coalesce agrarian, labor, and women’s rights supporters. Explaining Lease’s ability to elicit emotional responses from her audiences, a fairly critical commentator noted that “her discourse . . . had started the water works and you could hear the briny tears splash on the floor. In half an hour it was so damp that the women had to hold up their dresses and before she finished two-thirds of the crowd were ready to go out and string up the first banker they met on sight. . . . By the time she got through she had led the crowd all the way from weeping sympathy to frenzied anger. . . . Tar and feathers would have been in immediate demand with that crowd if a mortgagee had hove in sight.”71

Lease’s speeches were also infused with rhetoric that drew upon traditional American notions concerning the virtuous yeoman farmer. Together with her deep philosophical and sentimental attachment to agrarian society, Lease’s reforming enthusiasm and concern for the plight of late-nineteenth-century farmers appears to have stemmed from her failed-farming experiences during childhood and adulthood. Lease’s speeches reiterated farmers’ frustrations concerning their diminishing importance in the national economy; worked to reaffirm farmers’ commitment to Populist ideals; and assured supporters that the populace could reclaim its power through active political protest. “We have heard, out on the prairies of the West, the cry of your starving thousands,” Lease declared, “but your monopolies and corporations cannot starve down the farmers of this broad, free land. The farmers are the hope of the nation. They are the ones who leaped forward on every occasion to save the country.”72 Lease encouraged farmers to rectify the nation’s industrial ills and combat the calculated efforts of entrenched ← 53 | 54 → power brokers to injure farmers and laborers alike, though her suggestions were often vague and offered little in terms of concrete reform policy. For instance, in one such speech, she stated:

Because of political mismanagement our country has become practically an annex to England with its imperial gold basis. We protest against being thus used; we protest against legislation that permits a few to confiscate one-half of the property of this country while the great mass of people starve on what is left. But there is a remedy and it is to be furnished by the farmers. The farmers in every conflict that has swept this country from the battle of Lexington down to the great rebellion have always come to the front and have solved the great questions involved successfully. Today they are called on to solve the labor question. You may club down the laborers in cities and make them the slaves of plutocracy, but you cannot, thank God! starve and club down the farmers of this country who stand ready to save it.73

Her references to the sacred and patriotic nature of agrarian society gave desperate farmers a sense of pride and common identity. Her nostalgic agrarian rhetoric stirred farmers and presumably pushed many of them to vote for the Populist Party. By sanctifying American agrarian society and relating it to the founding of the nation, Lease was able to argue that the government had a responsibility to protect farmers through the implementation of various monetary and regulatory reforms.

Lease’s speeches cited and expounded upon ideas put forth by agrarian political thinkers like Thomas Jefferson, particularly his apparent opposition to British landholders, merchants, and conservative religious and political leaders. In his 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson famously insisted that “those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God” and were uniquely suited to avoid the “corruption of morals.”74 Drawing from Jefferson’s ideas as well as her Irish heritage, Lease’s Populist Party campaign speeches expressed farmers’ economic and philosophical commitment to the land. “This land is the heritage of the American,” Lease declared, because “it belongs to him, and he must have it.” Like Jefferson, Lease believed that producers, namely farmers and manual laborers, were instinctively imbued with common sense and therefore were best suited to identify and support pragmatic and sound politics. Lease and the Populists shared with Jefferson and Andrew Jackson a fear that the financial elite was working to control the government and consequently would diminish or even destroy the democratic process. Lease chastised banks as dangerous, foreign-supported entities with monopolistic, strangling tendencies. As seen in Lease’s speeches calling for reforms such as direct loans to farmers, however, the Populists and their supporters began to reject the Jeffersonian heritage of limited government. Instead, Populists envisioned an expanded and positive federal government that could promote a new civic polity and deal effectively with the financial power wielded by the few or the “money power” as described by Lease. In fact, Lease placed great faith in the power ← 54 | 55 → of government institutions to restrain big business, solve wealth disparity problems, and protect the populace.75 Lease and the Populists sought to cast themselves as authentic Americans, as hardy patriots, and as the founding fathers’ legitimate heirs. They de-emphasized America’s revolutionary heritage and instead focused on pragmatic notions of restraint and protection through government oversight.76

Drawing upon her third-party experiences in Kansas, Mary Lease assisted in founding the national Populist Party in 1892, simultaneously moving herself from local notoriety to national fame. By 1892, papers both within and outside of Kansas featured political cartoons that depicted Lease as the national leader of the Populist Party.77 Her third-party endeavors on both the state and national levels infused Lease with a sense of optimism concerning the potential for concrete agrarian, labor, and monetary reform, yet the Populists’ move toward partisanship, politicking, and various vote-generating strategies would eventually dash Lease’s hopes. As Lease and the Populists moved their reform activities from the local to national levels, they participated in the late-nineteenth-century debate concerning the proper role of the government in the economy, revealing a growing distaste for laissez-faire economic policies and an increasing acceptance of an activist state. Most noticeably and anticipating the coming Progressive movement, Lease and the Populists assisted in altering how Americans viewed the government’s role in and reaction to the private economic system and particularly the growth of corporate monopolies.

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Chapter 4

To “Raise Less Corn and More Hell,” Mary Lease and Populist Politics in the Early 1890s

By the early 1890s, Mary Lease was drawing and energizing large crowds who appreciated her forceful messages articulating farmers’ frustrations and denouncing the “money power.” Lease’s most memorable speech of the time came in May 1890, when she was campaigning on behalf of the Farmers’ Alliance in Walnut Grove, a small town located in Miami County, Kansas, and allegedly directed farmers to “raise less corn and more hell.”1 Her polemicist oratorical style and use of combative rhetoric, which opponents regarded as a “calamity howl,” contrasted with the Victorian female model that taught women to use deferential, submissive language.2 Lease’s focus upon economic issues coupled with her dynamic personality, exceptional oratory, and ability to connect with her audiences on a personal and emotional level enabled her to move into the male political realm even while nineteenth-century gender roles instructed women to remain quiet within the domestic sphere. “No woman ever moved a Miami county audience as did Mrs. Lease on that day,” reflected one reporter who listened to her famed “less corn and more hell” speech. Lease asserted in her speech that the “metropolitan press” would chastise her for her remarks, “but my tongue is loose at both ends and hung on a swivel, so I’m likely to have considerable notoriety in the near future.” Lease also apparently delivered this controversial speech in Halstead, Kansas, and later at a fairground near Olathe, Kansas to an audience of some 4,000 people who had driven as far as 40 miles in buggies or ridden on horseback to hear Lease. Parodies and jokes concerning Lease’s infamous speech quickly circulated the nation, and her historical legacy remains attached to this oft-quoted phrase.3

Lease’s “less corn and more hell” speech as well as many of her other speeches denouncing the “monied power” in America provided sound bites that the Republican, Democratic, and Populist presses readily circulated for their own political ends, even while many editors probably realized that the “less corn and ← 56 | 57 → more hell” phrase was not actually a verifiable quote. Typical of the subsequent jokes published about Lease’s “less corn and more hell” speech, the Kansas Republican Leavenworth Times insisted that “Mrs. Lease must have concluded as did Milton’s Satan that it is better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” Years later recalling the impact of Lease’s speech, former Democratic Kansas Governor George H. Hodges contended that men shouted and women cried out in agreement with Lease’s words, and “the crowd was converted to Populism as a new religion.” Former Populist Wynne Powers Harrington noted that after her speech Lease was in chief demand as a “rabble-rouser” on the Populists’ lecture circuit.4 Lease’s celebrated speech secured her popularity in Kansas, but also helped to launch her national political career because her speech was frequently quoted and easily remembered. For the Populist Party at the state and national levels, the speech became a tool for political organizing and for galvanizing farmers and workers under the Populist banner. Ironically, after becoming a national figure, Lease maintained in an 1896 interview that she never actually directed farmers to “raise less corn and more hell,” though supporters and opponents alike continued to associate Lease with the speech.5 In the years following her alleged “less corn and more hell” speech, writers throughout the country continued to reference the 1890 Walnut Grove speech. For instance, when speaking in Kentucky in 1895, a pundit wondered: “Will Mrs. Lease ask Kentucky farmers to raise less blue grass and more blue blazes?”6

Opponents, in particular, framed Lease’s infamous speech within gendered terms as a way to counter her public appeal and attack her legitimacy. “Mollie Lease,” reflected the Washington Register, expressed “her male affinity” when she “advised the farmers of Kansas to raise less corn and more hell.”7 Other papers played off her speech by insisting that her uncontrolled “fury” suggested that of a woman “scorned” and neglectful mother.8 The Concordia Times observed that “Lease has been devoting altogether too much attention to raising cane in the field of Kansas politics and too little attention to raising her children.”9 In the same vein, the Wichita Weekly Eagle wondered why “Mrs. Lease had not been scorned when she declared that she would turn her attention from corn growing to raising that other thing.”10 When discussing her Populist Party speeches, supporters and opponents alike tended to fill their articles with detailed references to Lease’s appearance and demeanor, often focusing less on the actual content of a given speech. In describing her physicality when remembering Lease on the Walnut Grove lecture platform delivering her “less corn and more hell” speech, one obituary said: “Summer as it was, she wore a dark dress of light, or gauzy fabric, with a collar nearly up to her chin. Her tall form was rather willowy—about 5 feet, 9 or 10 inches in height—and her dark brown hair was parted in the middle and pinned in a rather large roll at the back. . . . In speaking, her eyes, blue and large, seemed to carry an enchantment and she well knew the modulations of voice.”11 ← 57 | 58 →

Mary Lease did offer specific remedies to the problems faced by farmers, so her “less corn and more hell” speech along with other similar campaign speeches provided more substance than the press sound bite machine might lead the casual observer to conclude. She called for government regulation of industry, for example, in order to reverse the Gilded-Age trend toward business consolidation. Rejecting the “Gospel of Wealth” ideology, Lease maintained that the disparities of wealth in America resulted not from natural forces, but from a preconceived and nefarious effort on behalf of the nation’s “money power.” Populists approved of the basic features of capitalism such as property rights, a system of wage labor, and a market framework of commodity exchange, but only so long as it functioned within the context of a non-monopolistic economic system. Populists argued that monopolism was not essential to capitalism since monopolies sprung forth only after business competition and economic discrimination went unchecked.12 Lease maintained that the Populist Party would “bring emancipation to all the world. The divine right of kings and the divine right of capital will fade away, and the divine right of justice will enkindle new life in the hearts of men.” She also reportedly “denounced the Jay Gould monopolists” and claimed that the Populists, unlike the Republicans, were “honestly endeavoring to secure legislation in the interests of the people.”13 She disliked the nation’s expanding disparities in individual wealth and sought government assistance to mediate the new economic system and help the disadvantaged. Lease’s discussions of “the people” versus the monopolists appealed to Kansans during the Populists’ 1890 campaign because impoverished farmers there sought to blame someone and something for the circumstances that politically disempowered them and made farming unprofitable.

At Populist-sponsored picnics and political rallies that Lease attended, songs and speeches educated audiences about the Populists’ reform goals, particularly the Populists’ desire to eradicate corporate monopolies and vast American wealth disparities. Popular Populist songs utilized the tunes of the Pledge of Allegiance, the Declaration of Independence, and other patriotic refrains. Consequently Lease and other activists sang protest songs with lyrics like: “My country ’tis of thee, Once Land of Liberty, Of thee I sing. Land of the millionaire; Farmers with pockets bare, Caused by the cursed snare, The Money Ring.”14 To publicize one of her speaking engagements, a promoter informed readers that Lease maintained “a soul fire by patriotism” and was “a promoter of patriotism” who “stands today the perfect exponent of progressive thought.”15 Lease skillfully cloaked her reform proposals in the “spirit of 1776” patriotic rhetoric, making an almost conservative appeal, which presumably countered some gendered attacks and likewise quelled some opponents who sought to brand her as a “dangerous” radical and demonize her as “a sympathizer of the lawless element of this country.” To question Lease’s patriotism if not her Americanism, opponents likened Lease to the “Chicago anarchists,” and ← 58 | 59 → as one who could “become the leader and encourager of a band of anarchists carrying the red flag.”16

Through her songs and speeches, Lease expressed her deep concern about monopolies and financial legislation that seemingly intensified agrarian hardship. As a way to ease farmers’ plight, Lease and the Populists proposed the free coinage of silver. Populists argued that if the government coined more silver, thus placing more money in circulation, the resulting inflation would make farmers’ loans easier to pay off. Some reformers lobbied the government to issue greenbacks in order to increase the money supply and spur inflation, while others focused exclusively upon increased silver coinage. On July 14, 1890, Republican U.S. Senator John Sherman’s Silver Purchase Act became law and stipulated fixed monthly purchases of silver. Yet the act succeeded neither in raising the price of farm commodities nor in substantially increasing the money supply.17 In her speeches, Lease tackled the money question and complained that the previous demonetization of silver in 1873, along with the 1890 silver legislation, “had all been in favor of the money power . . . [and caused] the consequent poverty of the people.” Lease, who agreed with the old Greenbacker argument that an increased money supply would assist farmers and other debtors, frequently alluded to Republican conspiracies to demonetize silver and “take the greenback” or steal from “the people.” Whether campaigning for silver, women’s rights, or prohibition, Lease consistently pitted her causes against a monolithic enemy. Lease’s silver discussions laid blame upon Republican politicians and accused them of bolstering monopolists through legislation that exploited the people. She similarly blamed Sherman for introducing legislation that intensified farmers’ and laborers’ hardships. Addressing an audience in 1891, Lease remarked that listeners should forget their “party affiliations in the past” and vote for the Populists because politicians like Sherman ought to be placed “in irons behind penitentiary bars” for implementing such economic policies.18

Although silver coinage would become the Populists’ centerpiece reform item by the late 1890s, Lease and the Populists considered an array of other money supply issues during the early part of the decade, including farmers’ mortgage burdens. The Populists roundly denounced mortgage companies’ presumed exploitive business practices. Throughout the 1890 Populist campaign, Lease accused mortgage companies of affixing excessively high interest rates to farmers’ home loans. In Kansas, from 1889 to 1893, more than 11,000 farm mortgages were foreclosed upon, and in some counties as much as 90 percent of the farm land passed into the ownership of loan companies. Lease condemned the “old parties” for giving the people “nothing but mortgages and usury.” She asked for government assistance in restraining mortgage companies and believed that farmers had a right to a decent standard of living that included home ownership. “We will stand by our homes and stay by our firesides by force, if necessary, and we will not pay our debts to the shark loan companies until the government pays its debts to ← 59 | 60 → us,” Lease asserted in 1891.19 She effectively convinced listeners that voting for the Populists would help farmers escape the tentacles of mortgage companies. According to Lease, “corporations have been enthroned and the money power will prolong its reign till all of liberty is lost” if “the people” continued to elect “old-party” politicians who supported and protected loan and mortgage corporations’ monopolistic behaviors.20 Lease could speak with some personal authority from her pulpit as her family farm had been repossessed by a mortgage loan company, a fate experienced by many other farmers. It was this type of economic desperation that fueled the Populist movement, which sought to politically and economically empower farmers and workers and challenge the corporate and financial elite.21 Lease’s firsthand experiences with farmer impoverishment and farm eviction along with her longstanding commitment to radical Irish Nationalist sentiment allowed her to effectively communicate and personally connect with agrarian reform audiences. Lease’s ability to identify and describe farmers’ economic frustrations in straightforward terms, particularly personal issues like family impoverishment and overdue mortgage payments, encouraged voters to support the Kansas Populists during the 1890 elections and later to support the national Populist Party’s 1892 electoral crusade.

Just as Lease blamed the “old parties” for assisting monopolistic financial institutions and for passing pro-business legislation, she also repeatedly chastised the “old parties,” and particularly the Republican Party, for cooperating with railroad corporations. The railways loomed large in the lives of all prairie inhabitants by the 1890s, including the Lease family. When the Populists launched their 1890 electoral campaign, Kansas could boast the second-largest state railroad network in the United States with 8,797 miles of track, but farmers resented their dependence on the railroads and called upon the government to intervene on their behalf. They believed that railroads discriminated against them by setting excessively or artificially high freight rates for shipping their agricultural goods to eastern markets.22 Whereas railroads gave large corporations such as steel companies rate breaks for shipping their durable goods, farmers had little choice but to pay exorbitant freight rates or let their perishable crops sit and rot. To combat such perceived discrimination, farmers called for interstate commerce laws that would “secure the same rates of freight to all persons for the same kinds of commodities.” Farmers despised and feared railroad corporations’ financial power and their manipulation of state legislatures and law enforcement agencies. For her part, Lease effectively identified the sense of dependence and disempowerment farmers felt at the hands of railroad corporations. Lease and the Populists regarded railroad corporations’ excessive freight charges as one of the primary factors making agriculture profitless during the late 1880s and the depressed 1890s.23

The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Corporation, the dominant railroad in Kansas, controlled government officials through bribery and intimidation and ← 60 | 61 → consequently obtained lucrative state government financial assistance. Kansas farmers generally viewed the Santa Fe as “crooked,” especially in the political realm, and the Populist press printed sensational stories linking the Kansas Republican Party to various acts of railroad corruption. In addition to the problems already associated with the railroad industry such as high production costs and track over-expansion, Kansas state, local, and municipal government bodies offered financial assistance and subsidies to railroads so that 80 percent of the state’s municipal debt in the late nineteenth century was incurred while helping to finance the railroads. At the same time, the Supreme Court consistently ruled in favor of railroad corporations, not in favor of farmers and small entrepreneurs who, like Lease, wished to halt rate discrimination and the consequences of a monopolistic transport system.24 Angered that the government subsidized railroad corporations like the Santa Fe through land grants, low-interest government loans, and other mechanisms, Lease delivered several speeches that condemned the federal government’s role in enhancing the nation’s economic inequalities. “The common people,” decried Lease, “suffer from two great robbers: the Santa Fe railroads and the loan companies.”25 At Populist state conferences, Lease and other members of the Populists’ state central committee publicly investigated the assumed manipulation of railroad assessment rates.26

While Lease denounced corporate railroad “robbers,” the opposition press called Lease hypocritical for accepting free passes to ride the Santa Fe Railroad while she simultaneously criticized the railway. Other political leaders accepted free passages as well, but naturally the opposition press utilized the patent political opportunity to ridicule Lease and the Populist cause she represented. Lease probably accepted the passes because she believed railroads stole from farmers, so she might as well use the rails to spread the pro-farmer Populist gospel.27 Whatever her motivations, her use of the railway passes provided ample material for Republican opponents to target Lease as hypocritical, disingenuous, and inconsistent. Concerning the debate over Lease’s alleged receipt of a free Santa Fe railroad pass, the Kansas City Star said: “Mrs. Lease says she never asked for a free pass over the Santa Fe. . . . Of course nobody likes to doubt the word of a woman.”28 “‘Mrs. 2,718’ is the newest way of referring to Mrs. Lease,” joshed the Atchison Daily Globe, “it is the number of her railroad pass.”29 “Mrs. Lease rides on Santa Fe pass No. 2,718,” claimed the Kansas Weekly Capital, so “the ‘reformers’ are not talking any more about the infamy of receiving favors from the railroads.”30 According to one report in the well-circulated Chicago Tribune, which could, first, possibly explain Lease’s acceptance of free railroad passes, and, second, suggest the growing political strength of the Populist movement, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad actually agreed to lower shipping rates to help struggling Kansas farmers. The railroad apparently appealed to the Trans-Missouri Association to make the rate 1 percent per mile for farm hands, but the Association denied the ← 61 | 62 → request. The paper concurred with a law suit previously brought against the Trans-Missouri Association in Topeka that the roads constituted a trust because unanimous consent of all railroads in the Association must be obtained to render a rate reduction, even in this “emergency” case. The Chicago Tribune concluded that this “may be taken by the court as prima facia evidence that the Association is a trust.”31

Actually, anti-Populist journalists commonly detailed Mary Lease’s earnings, whether in the form of railroad passes or direct payments, both in an attempt to connect her reform activities to some sort of politically corrupt profit-making scheme and to portray Lease, as opposed to her husband, as the family provider. Despite the rising number of women entering new factory, sales, and clerk jobs in the late nineteenth century, the entrenched gender division of labor that evolved as industrialization developed remained a powerful guiding force for businesses, families, labor unions, and politicians as their discourse continued to reflect and champion male breadwinning. Therefore, Lease’s financial contribution to her family’s household income, earned in the male domain of public politics, was ripe material for opponents’ sardonic remarks. “Mrs. Lease draws big crowds and good collections in New York,” reported the Emporia Daily Gazette, “and also her salary in Kansas.”32 One such paper suggested that Lease was “complaining that she would have amounted to more if she had not been hampered by a family to support.”33 When asked about her Populist Party campaign salary during an interview, Lease allegedly responded, “I have a family to support,” which enabled her opponents to chastise her and her husband for their inverted gender-role arrangement. “Mr. Lease has greatly risen in public respect,” proclaimed a critic, “since he threatened to lick the man who wouldn’t pay Mrs. Lease’s traveling expenses.” “Is the financial distress of the Lease family due to the failure of Mrs. Lease, as a man, to earn the living,” queried another journalist, “or the failure of Mr. Lease, as a woman, to manage domestic affairs economically?”34

Partially in response to such attacks and to prove that the Republican Party was aiding and abetting monopolistic enterprises like the railroads, the Populists encouraged Lease to both formally seek and informally instigate public debates with her Republican opponents. From September to November 1890, for example, Lease and a prominent Kansas Republican, Minerva Walker, debated in columns in the Populist Party’s Topeka Advocate and the Republican Party’s Harper Graphic. Lease and Walker were directed to consider whether or not the Republican Party had remained faithful to its 1860 party platform during subsequent years. Lease insisted that the Republican Party “gave way” to monopolistic corporations by granting railroads the best western lands, while mortgage and loan corporations threw prairie farmers into debt and off of their farm lands.35 Walker insisted that Lease “scatters seeds of dissension and discontent among the farmers of Kansas,” while “her limit of exaggeration is bounded only by her desire to prove her position ← 62 | 63 → the correct one and to annihilate her opponent.” Lease retorted that Walker did not write her own articles, and chastised her for conflating the meanings of socialism and anarchism. Employing her now customary jarring rhetoric when discussing Republican opponents like Walker, Lease expressed surprise “that one of my sex defiled her mouth by the low slang and vile language that appears in the Graphic.” A significant part of Lease’s campaign strategy involved personally attacking opponents rather than simply rebuking the policies that Walker and others proposed or defended.36 Such a political strategy was fodder for jokes. “Mrs. Lease is taking a rest,” wrote the Atchison Daily Globe, since “she has worked very hard. She ought to get to some spa in Europe and live in retirement for several years. There are many Republicans who would cheerfully pay her expenses.”37 In many ways, her use of the personal attack strategy to counter opponents understandably generated significant political enemies over the course of her career. This interchange probably encouraged Republicans and Democrats to sometimes express virulent, if not ruthless and mean-spirited, anti-Lease rhetoric.

Lease reacted to public criticism by lashing out at “old-party” politicians, and her verbal attacks upon Republican U.S. Senator John James Ingalls epitomized her defensive strategy. Lease and the Populists made spoiling the re-election bid of Ingalls one of their principal goals during the 1890 campaign. Aiming to defeat Ingalls, whose fate would not be decided until the Kansas legislature met in early 1891, provided a focal point for farmer mobilization, especially because Ingalls represented old Republicanism in Kansas while the Populist Party insisted that it worked for a new Kansas. Lease condemned Ingalls and the Republican Party for “centralizing all wealth in the hands of a few” and for placing “the laboring classes [in]to a condition of pitiable serfdom.” Addressing an audience of Farmers’ Alliance members for three hours, Lease discussed the degraded state of American politics and declared that “old-party” politicians like Ingalls sent “the starvation-driven wretch and the thoughtless boy to the penitentiary for speculation and exalt to the highest position in state and nation gamblers, thieves and moral wreckers of society.”38 To Lease, Ingalls represented all that was evil and misguided within the Republican Party. “Keep your eye fixed upon the mark,” Lease advised listeners in another speech about Ingalls, “and don’t flinch when you pull the trigger.”39 Lease criticized Ingalls for his legislative inconsistencies and political unfaithfulness, and particularly condemned his alleged admiration for several Confederate Generals. Observing one of Lease’s attacks upon Ingalls, a reporter maintained that Lease gave Ingalls “one of the bitterest tongue lashings I have ever heard in a speech.”40 One paper suggested that Lease threatened to “hang” any Alliance member who voted for Ingalls.41 “The difference between Mrs. Lease and Mr. Ingalls is that she draws on the stock-in-trade of shallow vulgarity, while he goes to the master-thinkers of the world. Her work is coarse; his is the skill of an artist.”42 Lease and Senator Ingalls’s wife also found themselves embroiled in a related political feud, ← 63 | 64 → one that became particularly nasty and personal. Senator Ingalls’s wife, a women’s suffrage activist like Lease, apparently insulted Lease for being so “plainly” and “commonly” attired with the “absence of anything like feminine adornment in her attire.” Lease allegedly responded by likening Mrs. Ingalls to a plantation mistress in stating: “It was like the woman in her. The narrowness of women imprisons them to abuse and scold other women. When we had slaves in this country, they were the hardest taskmasters set to watch over slaves, and so women are the most cruel and unreasonable critics of women. That is why their organizations are not successes. Women are too narrow, too jealous of each other, too envious to run anything that requires organization and judgment.”43

The Populists won stunning victories in the November 1890 elections. The Kansas Populists garnered close to 40 percent of the state vote, putting 91 members into the state legislature and five into the U.S. Congress. As a result of these gains, the Populist candidate for U.S. Senate, Judge William Peffer, was able to defeat Ingalls by a vote of 101 to 58 when the new legislature voted in late January.44 Reflecting upon the historical legacy of Ingalls’s defeat, Lease stipulated that “for the first time in the history of the state of Kansas men were elected whom money could not buy.”45 Not surprisingly, the opposition press sought to downplay the Populists’ successes by capitalizing upon Lease’s apparent row with fellow Populists. One such article published in the Kansas City Journal quoted Lease stating: “I most emphatically denounce the corrupt methods of politicians, whether they belong to my party or any other.” The reporter then claimed she criticized Populists John Willits and William Peffer, but the pro-Populist Kansas Farmer immediately negated the claim as libelous language and the Kansas City Journal backed down by insisting it misquoted her.46 Still, another opponent wrote that “it is reported” that Lease “would rather see Ingalls returned to the senate than Peffer or Willits.”47

At the conclusion of the Senate contest, Lease proudly asserted that “the women of the Farmers’ Alliance defeated John J. Ingalls.”48 The opposition press also linked the Populists’ victories to women’s participation in their movement, but certainly without the praise Lease’s election appraisal constituted. Exaggerating the extent to which the Populists were controlled and manipulated by women and using Lease’s verbal attacks upon Ingalls as evidence, the opposition press ridiculed the Populist Party by arguing that it principally relied upon Lease and other women’s political efforts. The gendered subtext inferred that the Populist movement was weak, effeminate, irrational, and unstable. Reflecting her national celebrity status, The New York Times even commented on Lease and other female Populists’ anti-Ingalls crusade by observing that “they got Ingalls’s scalp.” One Republican newspaper referred to the Populists’ “monopoly of the women speakers” and informed readers that the Republican Party was savvier than the Populists given that “time spent by the women speakers is wasted.” According to another opponent, the Populist “men didn’t do much,” because Lease and fellow Populist ← 64 | 65 → Annie Diggs “were the stars in the play” and “the men only acted as scene shifters and s[t]upes.” The Lease–Ingalls feud illuminated how parties’ manipulated and defined appropriate gender roles for their own political purposes and, in so doing, determined the legitimacy of women’s political participation.49 In the opinion of the Populist Party’s Topeka Advocate, “there has been nothing too low or vulgar for the Republican press to say of her [Lease]. Such is the common policy of the Republican Party.”50

In her campaign speeches, Lease did not limit herself to attacks on Ingalls and financial monopolies. Like her Republican opponents, Lease “waved the bloody shirt.” “The soldiers were paid in depreciated greenbacks and the bondholders in gold,” she declared, “the Republicans have never kept their promise to make good the difference between the greenbacks and the gold. Now we propose to pay off the bondholders in depreciated bonds just as our soldier boys were paid.”51 In another speech, Lease argued that the Republican and Democratic parties were “identical,” while “the only reason the two had been quarreling was that the leaders of both parties kept the masses diverted while they perpetrated legislative robbery.” Though her verbal attacks were primarily aimed at the Republican Party as the dominant political entity in Kansas, Lease’s deeply-rooted hatred of the Democratic Party, with its connections to the South and the Confederacy, prompted her to speak disparagingly about the Democratic Party even while the Kansas Populists were attempting to garner Democratic votes.52 Lease may have injured the Populists’ attempts to attract and register laborers, many of whom were loyal Democrats, simply by her harsh comments about a party historically linked to urban workers. Lease publicly equated the Democratic Party with the old “slavocracy” by recalling the American Civil War and “waving the bloody shirt.”53 In “waving the bloody shirt” and to exploit anti-immigrant, anti-labor radicalism, and anti-Catholic sentiments of the time, Republican papers enthusiastically quoted Lease for their own political purposes, citing her for allegedly labeling the Democratic Party as “intolerant, vindictive, [and] slavemaking” and stating that “I don’t care to truckle to the Irish vote.”54 For her part, Lease accused both the Democratic and Republican parties of ignoring and even aiding the growth of industrial-monopoly capitalism that was “enslaving” American farmers and workers. Probably in reaction to her “bloody shirt” rhetoric, along with her agitation on behalf of the women’s rights and Populist movements, the Democratic Party saw an enemy in Lease.

Anti-Populist newspaper editors routinely used gendered name-calling as a political device to belittle Mary Lease and other Populists and to mock their agrarian reform agenda. The Republican Party and anti-Populist press railed against Lease and her party by referring to Lease as a “rabble rousing female fanatic,” a “demagogess,” “the people’s party Amazon,” and even as a “she hyena.” While the opposition press commonly used derogatory names to disparage male Populists ← 65 | 66 → such as Kansan Jerry Simpson, who was referred to as “Sockless Jerry,” they clearly focused upon Lease’s sexuality and physical appearance in their nicknaming endeavors. Whereas Simpson gained his nickname after he argued that his Republican political opponent purchased expensive socks that Simpson could not afford, opponents called attention to Lease’s seemingly unfeminine attributes by labeling her as “sexless as a cyclone,” a “Patrick Henry in petticoats,” or simply as an unfortunate “female man.”55 “Mrs. Lease calls Jerry Simpson the ‘Abraham Lincoln of the West,’ and Jerry Simpson calls Mrs. Lease the ‘Modern Joan of Arc,’” but, an Atchison Daily Globe writer speculated, “Lease resembles Joan of Arc in nothing except that she is a woman, and even this has been doubted. Some people say she is a man, and that her real name is Bill Lease.”56 Critics were especially prone to write that Lease exhibited a masculine persona and both looked and acted like a man. When Lease allegedly shouted, “Let us be men” at a Farmers’ Alliance picnic, one opponent commented that the “other women present wouldn’t agree to it and the scheme fell through.” After Lease spoke at an opera house in Wellington, the venue’s manager apparently stated that “Mrs. Lease is a perfect gentleman, and acted the man in every respect.” When she refused a lecturing engagement, a newspaper joked that “Mrs. Lease is, in short, not the man we took her to be.” A Republican campaign worker said of Lease that “the old lady was a ‘man of her word,’” and another opponent called her “a self-made man.” One Kansas paper joked that a Populist who had listed “the great men this country” had “neglected to mention Mrs. Lease.”57 “Molly Lease is frequently described as a ‘Joan of Arc,’” reflected one strong and frequent opposition paper, which continued that “the description goes until you see her” since “the original Joan of Arc did not have pimples and whiskers.”58 Other papers simply referred to Lease as “the biggest man” of the Kansas Populists, while another insisted that “nobody calls Mrs. Lease ‘Molly’ after seeing her” as “the name sounds too effeminate.”59 Referring to Lease as “Parson,” one paper joked that she “is said to be growing better looking” since she was resembling her husband more and more.60

Together with comments tagging Lease and fellow Populist Annie Diggs as “old hens,” Lease’s appearance and attire were routinely discussed by the press, exposing the societal emphasis on appropriate dress and gendered beauty norms. Discussions of Lease’s physical appearance and dress-reform proposals were listed in the political sections of newspapers and used by editors of all political veins to both belittle and extol Populism. Some opponents indicated that Lease “does not pretend that she is pretty,” because “she is too much in earnest for that kind of vanity.”61 In a retrospective piece, Kansas Republican editor William Allen White described Lease to be:

as sexless as a cyclone. . . . She stood nearly six feet tall, with no figure, a thick torso, and long legs. To me, she often looked like a kangaroo pyramided up from the hips to ← 66 | 67 → a comparatively small head. Her skin was a pasty white; her jowls were a little heavy; her eyes, the most expressive feature of her face, were of a nondescript color but capable of everything except the spoken language. She wore her hair in a psyche knot, always neatly combed and topped by the most ungodly hats I ever saw a woman wear. She had no sex appeal—none!62

Other opponents of Populism simply stated that Lease was not “pretty.”63 One journalist called her “tall and raw-boned and as ugly as a mud hen,” while another critic indicated that Lease had “a nose like an ant-eater, a voice like a cat fight and a face that is rank poison to the naked eye.”64 Lease’s “war paint” was her “only cosmetic,” according to one opponent, while another claimed “she is a raw-boned, ghostly-looking female, who speaks in a heavy boss voice with whiskers on it.”65 Gilded-Age partisan newspapers tended to harshly attack all political opponents, but Lease encountered much more criticism about her appearance than her male colleagues.

As Lease appeared more frequently in newspaper columns and upon public stages, disparaging newspaper attacks against Lease intensified. Whereas Lease and the Populists were commonly referred to as “anarchists,” “communists,” “cranks,” “loafers,” “misfits,” and “demagogues,” the opposition press focused special attention on Lease.66 Such attacks were probably motivated to a large degree by Lease’s gender as the era’s dominant Social Darwinian ideology offered pseudoscientific explanations concerning why women were intellectually inferior to men. The innuendo in many attacks levied against Lease involved questioning whether Lease as a female was capable of independent political thought. One reporter questioning Lease’s authenticity ironically credited another female reformer by arguing that Lease “cribbed” the ideas and words contained in Sarah Emery’s Seven Financial Conspiracies Which Have Enslaved the American People. Although a resident of Michigan, Emery campaigned on behalf of the Kansas Populist Party in 1890 and 1892, and Lease was familiar with Emery’s economic writings concerning the national banking system, demonetization of silver, credit contraction, and the consolidation of Wall Street and foreign financiers’ political and economic power since the American Civil War. Emery, too, endorsed women’s suffrage and temperance, but was primarily interested in broad economic and political injustices. Drawing on her experiences with the Greenback Party during the 1880s, Emery denounced the “money kings of Wall Street” and “English capitalists” for intentionally “robbing the people,” while she also utilized anti-Semitic references to “shylocks” in her writings. She denounced Sherman’s national banking system legislation, various legal tender bills, and legislation that repeatedly seemed to aid large financial institutions at the people’s expense.67 Lease also reproached the international “money power,” monopolistic corporations, Wall Street, and British bankers, but so too did many Populists who similarly evoked conspiracy theories because the ideas provided a common language and an effective rallying point ← 67 | 68 → around which farmers and other disempowered groups could condemn and attack industrial capitalism.68 Lease did not crib Emery’s works, but both women’s speeches drew upon the conspiratorial, anti-Semitic, class-conscious language that was popular amongst many reformers during the Gilded Age.

Lease’s intellectual capacity as a female remained a constant point of public discussion during the heyday of the Populists’ political influence. Whereas political supporters applauded Lease’s direct oratorical style and incisive analyses from the pulpit, her opponents employed gendered ideas concerning female “indecision” or “confusion” to mock Lease and her fellow activists. One non-partisan paper contended that Lease was “a woman with masculine desires” but “never gives up the feminine privilege of acting contrary” since “woman-like, she must be contrary.”69 Whether or not Lease uttered conflicting statements in her speeches or during interviews, her opponents insisted that she exhibited traits understood as specifically female, such as indecisiveness, nervous-system deficiency, and wavering mental capacity. Political opponents routinely questioned Lease’s mental state and intellectual capacity as a woman, which, according to one writer, provided “reason to believe that Mrs. Lease’s hat is not on straight.”70 “Lease has been going over the country making all kind of reckless and absurd statements, which have seldom been verbatim, and nobody can swear to her exact language,” so, according to another writer, “tying her down to paper and type will curb the old dame’s luxuriant fancy a little, and prevent her from denying one day what she said the day before.”71 Inferring that Lease was unsteady, unpredictable, and frequently changing her mind, a Republican paper said: “Mrs. Lease is a most irresponsible talker. . . . She keeps the People’s party busy explaining and denying her statements. In this indirect way Mrs. Lease is quite useful to the Republicans.”72 Nineteenth-century social commentators commended men for their assumed inherent and natural rational thinking. Women, on the other hand, were said to be naturally prone to impulsive, undisciplined behavior, but should strive to act submissive and passive.73 A Republican newspaper attempting to ridicule Lease’s natural female indecision actually provided insight into the nature and causes of her tremendous popularity within Populist Party circles: “Mrs. Lease may tell one story at 1 o’clock and another at 2; but whatever story she tells, she is always interesting.”74 That Lease was so “interesting,” charismatic, emotional, and direct enabled her to attract large crowds and set herself apart from other political campaigners of her day.

Lease did sometimes inject her speeches with what her listeners could legitimately argue were inherently inconsistent and incongruous statements. On women’s rights, for instance, Lease vacillated between utilizing constitutional theory, namely those liberties articulated in the Fourteenth Amendment, and the women’s moral authority defense to bolster and defend her women’s rights views.75 This seemingly contradictory defense of women’s rights was part of Lease’s larger oratorical style. Her sometimes theoretically paradoxical style enabled critics to ← 68 | 69 → denounce her “natural” female indecision or “floppiness” even if at the same time she was exhibiting a traditionally male political style of manipulating arguments to appease different audiences or constituencies. An editorial attributed Lease’s “highly paradoxical and wobbly” positions to “effeminate weakness” and to the fact that “she follows her affections and refuses to heed the plain dictate of her delicate judgment,” meaning she refused to conform to appropriate female roles.76 “Mrs. Lease has denied her denial of the interview regarding the cause of populistic defeat in the late election,” jibed one reporter. “Next she will deny the denial,” as she will do “anything to keep her name before the people.”77 Political opponents derided Lease and the Populist reforms she proposed by associating the party with women who were “uncontrolled by reason and delicacy” and thus were unfit for public pursuits. Therefore, the anti-Populist message claimed that heeding the advice of Lease, an irrational and impulsive person, was unwise and reflected Populists’ generally unsound judgments. Speaking of Lease, a Kansas paper reflected that “she is after all only a woman” and thus “lacks practicability,” while a Georgia paper joshed that “Lease executes a somersault with the agility, if not the grace, of a trained athlete.”78 “In no other state but Kansas would the people listen to a public orator who is so random in her statements as Mrs. Lease is,” wrote the Kansas City Star, and continuing: “Today she will declare black is white and tomorrow she will swear that black is green and the next day she will asseverate that she never said anything about black or white or green, but that she is sure that the Greeks never wore suspenders. On the fourth day she will have an entirely new proposition contradictory to all others and she will maintain it until she is purple in the face and forget all about it ten minutes after.”79 The Republican press insinuated that Lease changed her mind frequently: “If Mrs. Lease is to die for her opinions it would be well for her to designate which of the various conflicting and contradictory views of hers she desires to become a martyr for.”80

Following the November 1890 elections, Lease continued to maintain a strong leadership role within the Kansas agrarian reform movement. Although technically ineligible to join the Farmers’ Alliance because neither she nor her husband were farmers at the time, Lease was permitted to join the Kansas Citizens’ Alliance, which was an auxiliary of the Kansas Farmers’ Alliance. The Citizens’ Alliance was founded in January 1891 with the goal of attracting professionals who sympathized with the agrarian movement but who were not directly engaged in agricultural labor. Organizational meetings were held at the Knights of Labor hall in Topeka and about 200 delegates, including Lease, were present. Paralleling the Populist Party’s platform, the Citizens’ Alliance’s platform called for the abolition of national banks; an expanded money supply through the distribution of legal tender treasury notes as well as the free and unlimited coinage of silver and gold; bans on foreign land ownership; the Australian ballot; the elimination of trusts; women’s suffrage; and government ownership of the communication and transportation systems. The ← 69 | 70 → establishment of the Citizens’ Alliance further demonstrated that Lease and other activists were rejecting laissez-faire governmental policies and were instead seeking a more activist state able to regulate and stabilize the economy. Their support of women’s suffrage and the Australian ballot suggested a commitment to the precepts of participatory democracy. In January and February of 1891, Lease and others also established the National Citizens’ Alliance. The National Citizens’ and Farmers’ Alliances then sent Lease on a speaking tour throughout Tennessee during the winter of 1891.81 Lease allegedly encouraged listening farmers to “go forward even to the gates of hell,” which prompted a Republican paper to mock her by writing it “hoped it wouldn’t stop there.”82

From Tennessee, Lease traveled to Washington, DC in February 1891 in order to attend the annual convention of the National Council of Women of the United States (NCW). As a meeting of female reformers endeavoring to create an industrial women’s league, several prominent women attended, including Julia Howe, Anna Shaw, Mary Seymour Howell, Charlotte Smith, and Frances Willard. Using the term “industrial” to express its inclusive nature, the NCW worked to coalesce women’s groups interested in issues such as temperance, women’s suffrage, industrialization and labor reform, the abolition of child labor, immigration, and urban poverty. Founded in Washington in March 1888, just as the women’s club movement was gathering steam, the NCW was an umbrella organization comprised of a broad range of voluntary women’s groups with a common interest in the social, educational, and political rights of women. The NCW remained largely non-partisan, lobbied for social justice causes, and spoke broadly on issues concerning women’s “uplift.” Along with its affiliate organization called the International Council of Women, the NCW opened its membership to women of all races and religions. Frances Willard was elected council president, while Susan B. Anthony was elected as the organization’s vice president. In addition to the NCW’s annual meeting, both the Women’s League of America and the Women’s International Congress also held their national conventions in Washington during February 1891, and Lease was elected as a vice president for both organizations’ upcoming 1892 Washington conventions.83 She served as the principle representative of “The Women of the National Farmers’ Alliance.”84 Lease was honored with these positions due to her national fame, ability to attract the press and large audiences, and her deep connection to the women’s rights movement lasting her entire lifetime. One of her obituaries remembered her first and foremost as a “noted feminist,” while several others catalogued her numerous women’s rights endeavors.85 Lease lambasted not only bankers and monopolists, but the nation’s “great big male oligarchy” as well. She constantly expressed her belief in “women’s rights and the political equality of the sexes,” and asked men to “give the women a chance” to reform society through the vote.86 Announcing her speaking engagement, an advertisement billed Lease as “a champion of her sex.”87 ← 70 | 71 → Americans’ gendered responses to Lease’s public political efforts, moreover, revealed how profoundly gender norms shaped Gilded-Age political rhetoric.

At the NCW’s February 25, 1891 session on “The Political Status of Women,” Lease delivered a speech entitled “Women in the Farmers’ Alliance” before a large audience at Albaugh’s Opera House.88 She shared the speaking platform with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Julia Ward Howe, Anna Shaw, and Mary Seymour Howell during this session.89 In her speech, Lease stated:

It must be evident to every intelligent man and woman today that there is something radically wrong in the affairs of the nation. Conscienceless capital is robbing manhood of its prime! Mothers of their motherhood and sorrowful children of sunshine and joy. For 100 years the speculators, the land robbers, the pirates and gamblers of the nation have knocked unceasingly at the door of Congress and Congress has in every instance acceded to their demands.

Nineteenth-century social commentators and domestic reformers like Catherine Beecher believed in the sanctity of motherhood and argued that women naturally maintained a moral authority over men due to their maternal biology. Lease and other female Populists in many ways “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’s and the Populists’ maternal devotion to “the people” translated into campaigning for government-funded education and charity services as well as big business regulation.90 Lease indicated that women deserved equal rights with men because their innate maternal-based morality would cleanse politics and protect the American family, but she also echoed the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention’s “Declaration of Sentiments” that reasoned women deserved political, social, and economic equality grounded in the human rights’ principles articulated in the nation’s Declaration of Independence. Lease’s speech was generally well-received with a “rapturous applause by the large majority.”91 Of course, her usual political detractors back in Kansas utilized the opportunity to malign Lease, with one such paper stating: “All danger of an extra session of congress is passed: Mrs. Lease is going to Washington to stay for a few weeks.”92 Another joked: “The women suffragists are anxious to know who this new speaker, Mrs. Lease, is. Well, she is the lady from whom the Women Suffragists want to keep just as far away as possible.”93

Lease’s activism itself shaped the very terms of the women’s rights debate. Despite the cheers Lease received for her women’s rights speech at the NCW Washington Convention, some journalists reported that Lease caused a commotion at the conference by stirring up partisan tensions. In her NCW speech, Lease denounced Republican U.S. Senator John James Ingalls as a “rascal,” which brought cheers from female Farmers’ Alliance members and hisses from female ← 71 | 72 → Republicans.94 “Mary Ellen Lease is in Washington, pulling her hair, gnashing what are left of her teeth, and abusing Mr. Ingalls. Mrs. Lease’s party should call her home. It is pleasant to know that she is out if the state, but it is a relief to know when she is at home that she is not in the east calling disgraceful attention to Kansas.”95 Lease’s dislike of Ingalls probably most readily stemmed from his longtime public opposition to women’s suffrage. He defended his anti-suffrage stance be refuting the notion that voting was “an inborn, inalienable right” and by asserting that women should not be granted the vote simply “because they were women.”96 Most significantly, the partisan tensions that erupted at the NCW’s conference illuminated the deep political and philosophical divides that existed within the 1890’s reform movement generally and within the women’s rights movement in particular. The strength of the two-party political system and its related partisanship eventually split agrarian third-party reformers as well as members of the Kansas women’s rights movement.

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9781453911983
ISBN (ePUB)
9781454196457
ISBN (MOBI)
9781454196440
ISBN (Book)
9781433102578
Language
English
Publication date
2014 (February)
Published
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.

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Title: The ‘People’s Joan of Arc’