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The ‘People’s Joan of Arc’

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


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


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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...

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