Mary Elizabeth Clyens Lease (1853-1933), American lecturer, writer, and politician, gained national fame during the Populist crusade for reform in the 1890s. She was a zealous agitator for equality and opportunity.
Mary Elizabeth Clyens was born in Pennsylvania of Irish parents. She was reared and educated in Allegany County, N.Y. The family moved to Kansas, probably in 1870, at which time Mary Elizabeth was in Osage Mission, Kans., teaching in a parochial school. She married Charles L. Lease, a pharmacist, in 1873. The couple soon moved to Texas, where three of their four children were born. Returning to Kansas in the early 1880s, the family settled in Wichita.
In 1885 Lease was admitted to the bar and entered public life speaking on behalf of the Irish National League with a flaming tirade on the subject of "Ireland and Irishmen." In 1888 she spoke before the state convention of the Union Labor party, a forerunner of the People's party in Kansas, and was the party's candidate for county office long before women were eligible to vote.
Lease was an effective campaigner for the candidates of the Farmers' Alliance—People's party during the 1890 election, making over 160 speeches. During the campaign she was often mistakenly called Mary Ellen, and her enemies dubbed her "Mary Yellin." During one 3-hour speech in Halstead, Kan., she reportedly remarked, "What you farmers need to do is raise less corn and more Hell."
Lease was active in the presidential campaign of 1892, accompanying Populist candidate James Baird Weaver on a disastrous tour of the South. In Minnesota and Nevada she made eight speeches a day. When the Populists gained control of the administration of Kansas, she was named president of the State Board of Charities in 1893. She feuded with the governor and was removed from office but was reinstated by the Kansas Supreme Court.
In 1896 Lease was a leader of the antifusion faction in the Populist party, which fought a merger with the Democrats, who supported the presidential candidacy of William Jennings Bryan. She lost the fight at the national convention but immediately joined the staff of the New York World to campaign against the Democratic candidate. Lease turned to writing articles and poetry for magazines and published a book, The Problem of Civilization Solved. She continued to champion reform—woman's suffrage, prohibition, evolution, and birth control.
A Republican, Lease bolted the party in 1912 to support Theodore Roosevelt's presidential campaign. She retired from public life in 1921. Ten years later she bought a farm in Sullivan County, N.Y., where she died in 1933.
There is no book-length biography of Mary Elizabeth Lease. Sketches of her life and anecdotes and quotations from her political speeches are found throughout the literature on the Populist crusade, beginning with John D. Hicks, The Populist Revolt (1931). A highly colored biography is in Gerald W. Johnson, The Lunatic Fringe (1957).