Wednesday, April 15, 2020


by Andrea Downing
Mary Elizabeth Clyens Lease is usually associated with Kansas, but that was not her home state. She was born in 1850 (she later claimed 1853) in  PA to parents of Irish origin, and educated at St. Elizabeth’s Academy in Allegheny, NY.  The school was basically a finishing school run by Franciscan nuns, but they also had a diploma and college preparatory course which Mary may have taken part in. When her father, a Union soldier, died in Andersonville Prison during the Civil War, the family struggled financially.  In 1870, Mary’s mother sent her to teach at St. Ann’s Academy at the Osage Mission in St. Paul, KS.
In 1873, Mary married a local pharmacist’s clerk, Charles Lease. The economic panic of that year left Charles jobless and over the next few years, he shifted from job to job, and the couple lost their farm in Kingman County.  Now with four children, the Leases eventually moved to Denison, TX, where Charles took a job at Acheson’s Drugstore. This proved to be a lucky association for Mary who became friendly with Mrs. Sarah Acheson. Acheson encouraged her to become involved with the temperance movement, thereby lighting the spark in Mary for political agitation. While she took in washing, she also studied law, pinning her class notes above the washtub. A gifted speaker, Mary made her first speech to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and thereby started her career as a political firebrand. Meanwhile, Charles had been attempting to improve their financial status by buying and selling lots along the new railroad.
Now with six children in tow, the Leases moved back to Wichita, KS, in 1883, and Mary was admitted to the KS Bar in 1885, the first woman to do so.  In 1888, she became active in the Labor Union Party—you might say she was the Bernie Sanders of her time, with strong beliefs against monopolies and big business, and an even stronger Georgist stance. Georgism is difficult for me to understand, I admit, but basically it holds that people should be taxed on the value of their land and the wealth from it—I think!  Strongly pro-farmers and against the railroads’ high fees, and mortgage rates, the common man found Mary’s fervent speeches inspirational, while politicians and businessmen and newspapers sought to bring her down and criticize everything from her
Cooper Union
appearance on. By 1890, she was a founding member of the People’s Party, or Populist Party. To give you a sample of one of her speeches, in 1896 she was at Cooper Union in NY under the auspices of the Social Reform Club.  In a speech sprinkled with derisiveness against the names of Rothschild, Whitney, and Vanderbilt, she proclaimed, “…
here in this country we find in place of an aristocracy of royalty an aristocracy of wealth. Far more dangerous to the race is it than the aristocracy of royalty. It is the aristocracy of gold that disintegrates society, destroys individuals and has ruined the proudest nations.”

When the Populists made to form an association with the Democrats, Mary parted with them. She believed the Democrats had been responsible for the Civil War which, with the loss of her father and brother, she thought had been brought about by businessmen who profited from it.  While she was the first woman to be appointed as State Superintendent of Charities, Mary continued her socialist career.  In 1895, she wrote The Problem of Civilisation Solved, a book that infuriated the anti-Imperialists as it advocated US take-over of Latin America. While declaring herself a socialist, she campaigned for William Jennings Bryan, a foremost Democrat. Naturally, she also advocated for women’s rights, but mostly she had set her sights on Wall St. and the wealthy. In a speech entitled, ‘Wall Street Owns the Country,’ she proclaimed, “We fought England for our liberty and put chains on four million of blacks. We wiped out slavery and our tariff laws and national banks began a system of white wage slavery worse than the first…We want money, land and transportation. We want the abolition of the National Banks, and we want the power to make loans direct from the government. We want the foreclosure system wiped out... We will stand by our homes and stay by our fireside by force if necessary, and we will not pay our debts to the loan-shark companies until the government pays its debts to us…”
Mary Elizabeth Lease divorced her husband in 1902 and continued to be active on several fronts for many years. She was a member of the Daughters of Isabella, the female charitable, social and spiritual twin to the Knights of Columbus; a member of the Knights of Labor, which rose up against the railroads in 1884/85; an associate of the Prohibition Lecture Bureau; and a member of the Citizens’ Alliance which sought to strengthen the rights of working people.  She also relinquished her Catholic upbringing in favor of Christian Scientists.
State of Mary Elizabeth Lease in Wichita, KS, by Sculptor Babs Mellor
In her later years, Mary Elizabeth Lease lived with one or other of her four surviving children and wrote for Joseph Pulitzer’s publication, the New York World. By 1918, she had faded from the political scene and was lecturing for the NY Board of Education. She lived to see many of the treatises in which she believed come to fruition, including women’s suffrage and Prohibition, and was a strong admirer of Theodore Roosevelt whose Progressive Party, she believed, had taken up all the precepts of her Populist Party.
Mary Elizabeth Lease died in Callicoon, NY, in 1933.

There are no political firebrands in my book, Always on My Mind, although it certainly portrays a time—the seventies—when politics were to the forefront.  Here’s a bit about it:
1972 - Vietnam, the pill, upheaval, hippies.
Wyoming rancher Cooper Byrnes, deeply attached to the land and his way of life, surprises everyone when he falls for vagabond hippie Cassie Halliday. Fascinated and baffled, he cannot comprehend his attraction—or say the words she wants to hear.

Cassie finds Coop intriguingly different. As she keeps house for him and warms his bed at night, she admits to herself she loves him but she misinterprets Coop's inability to express his feelings.

Parted, each continues to think of the other, but how can either of them reach out to say, "You were 'always on my mind'?"

And it’s available from:

All photos believed public domain.  No copyright infringement is intended.



Julie Lence said...

Interesting lady. I've never heard of her, but it seems she knew what she wanted and wasn't afraid to go after it. Strong lady to do all of that and raise 6 kids.

Andrea Downing said...

Yes, Julie--another woman who crammed three lives into one! I don't hold with a lot of her beliefs--like taking over South America!--but I certainly admire her.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

I never heard of her before either! Interesting how long some of those ideas about big business vs the working man have been around. And such hardships in her life (father died at Andersonville! Horrible) for her to overcome. Thanks for helping keep the memory of another remarkable woman alive. And good luck with your excellent book.

Andrea Downing said...

thanks Patti. You couldn't get much worse than Andersonville, except maybe Auschwitz! It's interesting what drives people toward their path in life.

Renaissance Women said...

It is always good to learn about the past, and there are so many women that history let go by the wayside. Thank you for bringing the story back to life. Doris

Andrea Downing said...

You're very welcome, Doris. I understand from KS friends she is well known there, but obviously in the rest of the nation her name has rather faded.