Mary Elizabeth Lease, Gendered Politics and Populist Party Politics in Gilded-Age America
Chapter 1: Introduction
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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...
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