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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 7: Mary Lease and the Politics of Silver, Gold, and Nationalism, 1896–1900


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Chapter 7

Mary Lease and the Politics of Silver, Gold, and Nationalism, 1896–1900

Despite her concerns regarding the direction of the agrarian movement, Mary Lease lectured nationwide for the Populist Party in preparation for the 1896 elections. She continued to attract spectators by the thousands eager to hear her speeches denouncing wealth inequity and monetary policy, and was featured in a New York World article among “the faces that have made history in 1896.”1 Although she campaigned relentlessly, the major parties ultimately stymied Populist Party radicalism and independence. The Republican press predicted Populism’s death knell as the 1896 elections approached, routinely running headlines declaring that “Populism may die” or “Populism is dead.”2 Dismayed by such developments, Lease began her gradual drift from Populism to Progressivism and from rural to urban America. Lease’s ideological and geographic shifts did not alter her overall commitment to promoting greater government involvement in assisting citizens through the implementation of sound monetary policies and industrial regulation. In fact, her movement from Populism to Progressivism coincided with her personal evolution in reform, one that more clearly connected the concerns of urban inhabitants with those of disenfranchised, impoverished farmers. Her advocacy of such broad-based reform came at a time when more Americans were questioning the economic fairness and political soundness of laissez-faire policies and increasingly came to accept a more activist, regulatory state.

The Populist Party’s 1896 election crusade primarily involved promoting the free and unlimited...

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