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Mary Elizabeth Lease (September 11, 1850[a] – October 29, 1933) was an American lecturer, writer, Georgist,[1] and political activist. She was an advocate of the suffrage movement as well as temperance but she was best known for her work with the People's Party (Populists). She was born to Irish immigrants Joseph P. and Mary Elizabeth (Murray) Clyens, in Ridgway, Pennsylvania. In 1895, she wrote The Problem of Civilization Solved, and in 1896, she 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. Mary Elizabeth Lease was also known as Mary Ellen Lease, her name often misspelled during the campaign.[2] She was called "Queen Mary" (after the British Queen consort, Mary of Teck), "Mother Lease" by her supporters and "Mary Yellin" by her enemies. Lease died in Callicoon, New York.

Mary Elizabeth Lease
Mary Elizabeth Lease.jpg
Lease in the 1890s
Mary Elizabeth Clyens

September 11, 1850
DiedOctober 29, 1933(1933-10-29) (aged 83)
OccupationLecturer, editor
Political partyPeople's Party
Charles L. Lease (m. 1873–1902)


Early lifeEdit

At the age of 20, she moved to Kansas to teach school in Osage Mission (St. Paul, Kansas), and three years later she married Charles L. Lease, a local pharmacist. They lost their Kingman County farm in the Panic of 1874 and moved to Denison, Texas where she studied law.[3] The Leases and their four children later moved to Wichita, Kansas, where she took a leading role in civic and social activities.

Political careerEdit

In 1888, she began to work for the Union Labor Party and gave a speech at their state convention. She was also involved in African American suffrage. From there she became involved in the movement that would become the Populist Party. She believed that big business had made the people of America into "wage slaves", declaring, "Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street. The great common people of this country are slaves, and monopoly is the master."[4] Although she is widely believed to have exhorted Kansas farmers to "raise less corn and more hell," she later said that the admonition had been invented by reporters. Lease decided to let the quote stand because she thought "it was a right good bit of advice."[5]

By 1890, her involvement in the growing revolt of Kansas farmers against high mortgage interest and railroad rates had placed her in the forefront of the People's (Populist) Party. She was recognized as being a powerful orator who was adept at expressing the discontent of the people. Emporia editor William Allen White, who did not share her political views, wrote on one occasion that "she could recite the multiplication table and set a crowd hooting and harrahing at her will."[6] While many considered her speeches inspirational, the fervor of her words, and the vehemence of her conviction, made others hesitant to support her cause. Farmers and labor unions loved her, while the press and the major party politicians criticized her mercilessly. Most went far beyond disagreeing with the content of Lease's arguments, rather focusing their attacks on her looks, self-confidence, and her "unwomanly" argumentative behavior. One reporter described her as "untrained, and while displaying plenty of a certain sort of power, is illogical, lacks sequence and scatters like a 10-gauge gun."[7] The Wellington Monitor called her “a miserable character of womanhood and hideously ugly of features and foul of tongue.”[8]A Republican editor similarly characterized her as "the petti-coated smut-mill. Her venomous tongue is the only thing marketable about the old harpy, and we suppose she is justified in selling it where it commends the highest price."[9] Despite the abuse, Lease persevered, continuing to deliver her message throughout America. She would eventually make more than 160 speeches for the Populist cause, campaigning all over Kansas, as well as the Far West and the South.

Split with PopulistsEdit

Lease was a leader of the anti-fusion faction within the party who opposed merger with the Democratic Party. Lease began drifting away from the Populist Party after Populist Governor Lorenzo D. Lewelling was elected into office. By November 1893, she was reported to have openly criticized the Lewelling administration, only to deny it in an interview several days later.[10]

It would seem that the first interview reflected her true feelings. By December 1893, Lewelling attempted to have her removed from the board of charities, a position which he had appointed her to originally. Lease felt the attempt to have her removed stemmed from her determination to have women's suffrage and temperance as her main focus at the Populist Party's next state convention. Her public outrage at the attempt to remove her prompted other Populist parties to distance themselves from her.

By 1896, Lease had become alienated from the Populist Party, and historian Gene Clanton cites her split with the Populist Party as being a major contributor to the Populist party's defeat in 1894.[11]

Despite her fallout with—and the eventual destruction of—the Populist Party, Lease felt that their work and efforts were ultimately rewarded with the election of Theodore Roosevelt and the national push for reforms that she had championed years earlier: "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 seed we sowed out in Kansas did not fall on barren ground."[12]

Later lifeEdit

She divorced her husband in 1902 and spent the rest of her life with one or another of her children in the East until her death in 1933.

Literary scholar Brian Attebery claimed Mary Elizabeth Lease to have been the model for Dorothy in L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.[13]

Famous quotesEdit

"Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street. . . .Our laws are the output of a system which clothes rascals in robes and honesty in rags. . . ."[14]


  1. ^ In her later years, she claimed 1853 as her birth year.


  1. ^ Orr, B. S. (2006–2007). Mary Elizabeth Lease: Gendered discourse and Populist Party politics in Gilded Age America, Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, vol. 29, pp. 246–265.
  2. ^ . Retrieved 21 November 2018. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  3. ^ Wallis, Eileen V. (2008). Encyclopedia of Women and American Politics. New York: Infobase Publishing. pp. 280–281. ISBN 978-1-4381-1032-5.
  4. ^ "Wall Street Owns The Country" speech, circa 1890
  5. ^ Clanton, O. Gene. A Common Humanity: Kansas Populism and the Battle for Justice and Equality, 1854-1903.
  6. ^ "Mary Elizabeth Lease", Kansas State Historical Society
  7. ^ Clanton 1969, p. 75.
  8. ^ 1891-1900: The rise of populism, The Wichita Eagle, Beccy Tanner, January 29, 2011, UPDATED JUNE 08, 2011
  9. ^ Clanton 1969, p. 76.
  10. ^ Clanton 1969, p. 142.
  11. ^ Clanton 1969, p. 146.
  12. ^ Hicks, John D. The Populist Revolt, A History of the Farmers' Alliance and the People's Party. The University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1931. p. 421
  13. ^ Attebery, Brian. The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: From Irving to Le Guin (Bloomington, 1980), pp. 86–87
  14. ^ Zinn, Howard (2005). A People's History of the United States. New York: HarperCollins. p. 288. ISBN 9780060838652.

Works citedEdit

  • Clanton, O. Gene (1969). Kansas Populism; ideas and men. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. OCLC 22820.

External linksEdit