In the late 1800s, banks were charging as much as 50% interest on mortgages and Railroad rates were uncontrollably high. As a result, mid-west farmers were experiencing a downward economic spiral. In Kansas, among the frustrated farmers, one voice was heard that would unite them in search of a solution. It came from Mary Elizabeth Lease who raised her voice in defense of her Kansas farming neighbors.
Mary Ellen, as she was known, was the sixth child of Irish immigrants, Mary (Cullen) and Joseph Clyens, who had fled Ireland’s Great Hunger. Born in Pennsylvania on 11 September 1850, she lost her father and a brother in the Union Army during America’s Civil War. At age twenty she went to Kansas to teach school and married Charles Lease, a local pharmacist. In the 1870s, a nationwide economic depression swept away her husband’s pharmacy and left them penniless. After unsuccessful farming ventures, the Leases and their four children moved to Wichita, Kansas, where Mary Elizabeth took a leading role in civic and social activities. She empathized with the poor for, as she said, she was one of them!
In 1888, she began working for the Union Labor Party and spoke at their state convention. From that beginning, she helped to form the People’s Party which later became the Populist Party. She believed that big business had made the people of America into Wage Slaves, declaring, “The great common people of this country are slaves and monopoly is the master.” She exhorted Kansas farmers to “raise less corn and more hell.” She was remarkably like another Irish Woman who, at the same time, was ‘fighting like hell’ for miners back east; her name was Mother Jones. Similarly Mary Ellen was known as ‘Mother Lease’ by her supporters and ‘Mary Yellin’ to her detractors.
By 1890, her involvement in the growing revolt of Kansas farmers against high mortgage interest and railroad rates put her in the forefront of the Populist Party and she traveled all over Kansas, the Far West and the South for the cause. She was a powerful orator expressing the discontent of the farmers declaring, “Our laws clothe rascals in robes and honesty in rags.” Labor unions loved her while the press and major party politicians criticized her unmercifully. They even went beyond disagreeing with her message and focused their attacks on her looks, self-confidence and ‘unwomanly’ argumentative behavior. One Republican editor called her, ‘the petticoated smut-mill.’ Despite the abuse, she persevered, delivering her message throughout the States. making more than 160 speeches for the Populist cause. In 1890s Kansas, women could not run for office, but in the Republican-dominated State election that year, the Democrats took 8 seats, the Republicans took 26 and the Populist Party took 91. Mary Lease had sparked a fire and it swept the country in the next two years.
Encouraged by her success, she expanded her cause to include women’s suffrage, African American suffrage and temperance. She brought her revised agenda to the Populist Party’s next state convention. In December 1893, Populist Governor Lorenzo D. Lewelling disagreed with her new focus and tried to have her removed from the Board of Charities, a position to which he had previously appointed her. Lease’s public outrage at the attempt to remove her prompted newer members of the Populist Parties to distance themselves from her. She left the Populist Party and social historian Gene Clanton cites her split with the Party as a major contributor to the Populist party’s defeat in 1894.
In 1895, she wrote The Problem of Civilization Solved and in 1896, moved to New York City where she edited the democratic newspaper, World. In addition, she worked as an editor for the National Encyclopedia of American Biography. Despite her fallout with, and the eventual demise of, the Populist Party, Lease’s work and efforts were ultimately rewarded with the election of Theodore Roosevelt and the national push for the reforms that she had championed years earlier. She wrote, “In these later years I have seen, with gratification, that my work in the good old Populist days was not in vain. The Progressive party has adopted our platform, clause for clause, plank by plank. Note the list of reforms which we advocated which are coming into reality. Direct election of senators is assured; Public utilities are gradually being removed from the hands of the few and placed under the control of the people who use them; Women suffrage is now almost a national issue . . . The seeds we sowed out in Kansas did not fall on barren ground.” More an agitator than a practical politician, after 1896 Lease turned to personal interests and spent the rest of her life with one or another of her children in the East until her death in Callicoon, NY, on October 29, 1933, just one month after her 83rd birthday. Though rarely recognized for her contributions, She is truly one of the Irish Americans who changed America for the better.