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The ‘People’s Joan of Arc’

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

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Brooke Speer Orr

The ‘People’s Joan of Arc’: Mary Elizabeth Lease, Gendered Politics and Populist Party Politics in Gilded-Age America is the first comprehensive biography tracing the captivating life of renowned activist Mary Elizabeth Lease. While Lease is most remembered in American history textbooks as the radical leader of the Populist Party who directed desperate farmers «to raise less corn and more hell», her influence and involvement in the late-nineteenth-century women’s suffrage movement and early-twentieth-century feminist movement place her on par with luminaries such as Susan B. Anthony. Lease’s story stretches from the American Civil War to the Great Depression and particularly illustrates how gender conventions and the related complexities of class and ethnic identity have historically shaped American politics. The diverse suits Lease wore, including housewife, teacher, lawyer, women’s rights activist, temperance advocate, Populist Party orator, Knights of Labor activist, Irish Nationalist, Socialist, Progressive reformer, Republican Party supporter, and «Bull Moose» campaign worker, reflect and highlight the factors fueling America’s reform impulse in the decades framing the turn of the twentieth century and likewise make her a fascinating historical character. Lease’s political opponents accused her of raising too much «hell», while her supporters praised her for translating their sense of societal and economic disempowerment into concrete, proactive political actions. Mary Elizabeth Lease was a heroine to her supporters and a dangerous, unfeminine demagogue to her opponents. Either way, she was unquestionably one of the most captivating figures of her time.
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Chapter 1: Introduction

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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...

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