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Sherrie S. McLeRoy
Mary Elizabeth Lease
Mary Elizabeth Clyens Lease. Courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

LEASE, MARY ELIZABETH CLYENS (1853–1933). Mary Elizabeth Lease, lecturer, writer, and political agitator, daughter of Joseph P. and Mary Elizabeth (Murray) Clyens, was born in Ridgway, Pennsylvania, on September 11, 1853. Her father and two brothers were killed during the Civil War, and she subsequently hated the Democratic party, which she considered responsible for the war. In 1868 she graduated from St. Elizabeth's Academy in Allegany, New York. Shortly after her graduation she moved to Osage Mission, Kansas, to teach at St. Anne's Academy. In 1873 she married Charles L. Lease, a pharmacist's clerk, and moved to Kingman County. They lost their farm there and in 1874 moved to Denison, Texas, where four of their five children were born, while Mary took in washing and studied law, her notes pinned above the washtub. Charles took a job at Acheson's Drugstore.

Through the influence of Mrs. Alex (Sarah) Acheson, Mary joined the temperance movement and began her career of political agitation. She was a naturally gifted speaker with an ability to make the mundane seem dramatic. She probably made her first political speech before the local Woman's Christian Temperance Union. Charles appears to have attempted to augment his fortunes by buying and selling lots in the infant railroad town. By the fall of 1883 the Leases had moved back to Kingman County, Kansas, though they continued to have real estate dealings in Denison for several years. In 1885 Mary was admitted to the Kansas bar and began her activist career in earnest, a move that resulted in her divorce from Charles in 1902. She made her political debut in 1888 at the state convention of the Union Labor party, ran for office on its ticket, and soon joined the Farmers' Alliance, or Populist, party. She was referred to as the "People's Joan of Arc." In that party's 1890 campaign she made more than 160 speeches and claimed credit for the defeat of Kansas senator John Ingalls. She opposed big business and stated flatly that "Wall Street owns the country." After she allegedly told Kansas farmers to "raise less corn and more hell," she said a newspaper had made it up, but that it "was a good bit of advice."

Mary Elizabeth Lease pamphlet
Mary Elizabeth Lease pamphlet. She remained a hugely popular speaker after the decline of her success in politics. Courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

In 1892 she traveled the West and South with Populist presidential candidate James Weaver, who noted that the laboring people "almost worshipped her." The next year she pursued a race for United States senator and was vice president of the World Peace Congress in Chicago. She was also appointed president of the Kansas Board of Charities, but had a falling-out with Governor Lorenzo Lewelling over political appointments. Lewelling had been elected to office by a Populist-Democratic coalition. Mary Lease opposed the coalition and refused to support "fusion" appointments. Lewelling tried to remove her from office, going as far as the Kansas Supreme Court, but failed. But despite her victory over Lewelling, she did severe damage to her party by refusing to align with Democrats. The Lease-Lewelling controversy, along with other inner tensions, weakened the People's (Populist) party, and they were defeated in the 1894 elections at all levels of government.

In 1895 Lease wrote The Problem of Civilization Solved. She moved the next year to New York City, where she wrote for Joseph Pulitzer's newspaper, the New York World, campaigned against the Democrats, and, before fading from the political scene in 1918, lectured for the New York Board of Education. While in New York, she also worked as an editor for the National Encyclopedia of American Biography. Though she was raised a Catholic, she became a Christian Scientist as an adult. She belonged to the Daughters of Isabella, the Knights of Labor, the Prohibition Lecture Bureau, and the Citizens' Alliance. Mary Lease died in Callicoon, New York, on October 29, 1933.


Gene Clanton, Populism: The Humane Preference in America, 1890–1900 (Boston: Twayne, 1991). Dictionary of American Biography. Denison Herald, June 25, 1972. Scott G. McNall, The Road to Rebellion: Class Formation and Kansas Populism, 1865–1900 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988). New York Times, October 30, 1933. Richard Stiller, Queen of Populists: The Story of Mary Elizabeth Lease (New York: Crowell, 1970). Who Was Who in America, Vol. 1.

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Sherrie S. McLeRoy, "LEASE, MARY ELIZABETH CLYENS," accessed July 02, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fle97.

Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on April 4, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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