Women are not often thought of in association with the Populists, but the best-known orator of the movement in the early 1890s was a woman, Mary Elizabeth Lease. Born in Pennsylvania in 1850 to Irish parents, Lease became a school teacher in Kansas in 1870. She and her husband, a pharmacist, spent ten years trying to make a living farming, but finally gave up in 1883 and settled in Wichita. Lease entered political life as a speaker for the Irish National League, and later emerged as a leader of both the Knights of Labor and the Populists. Lease mesmerized audiences in Kansas, Missouri, the Far West, and the South with her powerful voice and charismatic speaking style. In this speech before the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1890, Lease championed the power of women in late-19th century grassroots political movements.
Madame President and Fellow Citizens:—
If God were to give me my choice to live in any age of the world that has flown, or in any age of the world yet to be, I would say, O God, let me live here and now, in this day and age of the world’s history.
For we are living in a grand and wonderful time—a time when old ideas, traditions and customs have broken loose from their moorings and are hopelessly adrift on the great shoreless, boundless sea of human thought—a time when the gray old world begins to dimly comprehend that there is no difference between the brain of an intelligent woman and the brain of an intelligent man; no difference between the soul-power or brainpower that nerved the arm of Charlotte Corday to deeds of heroic patriotism and the soul-power or brain-power that swayed old John Brown behind his death dealing barricade at Ossawattomie. We are living in an age of thought. The mighty dynamite of thought is upheaving the social and political structure and stirring the hearts of men from centre to circumference. Men, women and children are in commotion, discussing the mighty problems of the day. The agricultural classes, loyal and patriotic, slow to act and slow to think, are to-day thinking for themselves; and their thought has crystallized into action. Organization is the key-note to a mighty movement among the masses which is the protest of the patient burden-bearers of the nation against years of economic and political superstition.
The mightiest movement the world has known in two thousand years. . . is sending out the gladdest message to oppressed humanity that the world has heard since John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness that the world’s Redeemer was coming to relieve the world’s misery. We witness today the most stupendous and wonderful uprising of the common people that the world has known since Peter the Hermit led the armies of the East to battle against the Saracens in the Holy Land.
The movement among the masses today is an echo of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, an honest endeavor on the part of the people to put into practical operation the basic principles of Christianity: “Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.”
In an organization founded upon the eternal principles of truth and right, based upon the broad and philanthropic principle, “Injury to one is the concern of all,” having for its motto, “Exact justice to all, special privileges to none,”—the farmers and laborers could not well exclude their mothers, wives and daughters, the patient burden bearers of the home, who had been their faithful companions, their tried friends and trusted counselors through long, weary years of poverty and toil. Hence the doors of the Farmers' Alliance were thrown open wide to the women of the land. They were invited into full membership, with all the privileges of promotion; actually recognized and treated as human beings. And not only the mothers, wives and daughters, but “the sisters, the cousins and the aunts,” availed themselves of their newly offered liberties, till we find at the present time upward of a half-million woman in the Alliance, who, because of their loyalty to home and loved ones and their intuitive and inherent sense of justice, are investigating the condition of the country, studying the great social, economic and political problems, fully realizing that the political arena is the only place where the mighty problems of to-day and tomorrow can be satisfactorily fought and settled, and amply qualified to go hand-in-hand with fathers, husbands, sons and brothers to the polls and register their opinion against legalized robbery and corporate wrong.
George Eliot tells us that “much that we are and have is due to the unhistoric acts of those who in life were ungarlanded and in death sleep in unvisited tombs.” So to the women of the Alliance, who bravely trudged twice a week to the bleak country schoolhouse, literally burning midnight oil as they studied with their loved ones the economic and political problems, and helped them devise methods by which the shackels of industrial slavery might be broken, and the authors of the nation’s liberties, the creators of the nation’s wealth and greatness, might be made free and prosperous—to these women, unknown and uncrowned, belongs the honor of defeating for reelection to the United States Senate that man who for eighteen years has signally failed to represent his constituents, and who during that time has never once identified himself with any legislation for the oppressed and overburdened people.
Three years ago this man [John James] Ingalls [Republican Senator from Kansas] made a speech on woman suffrage at Abilene, Kan., in which he took occasion to speak in the most ignorant and vicious manner of women, declaring that “a woman could not and should not vote because she was a woman.” Why? She was a woman, and that was enough; the subject was too delicate for further discussion.
But we treasured up these things in our hearts, and then his famous, or rather, infamous interview in a New York paper appeared, in which he declared that: “It is lawful to hire Hessians to kill, to mutilate, to destroy. Success is the object to be attained; the decalogue and the golden rule have no place in a political campaign; the world has outgrown its Christ and needs a new one.” This man, said the law-abiding God fearing women, must no longer be permitted to misrepresent us. So we worked and waited for his defeat. And the cyclone, the political Johnstown, that overtook the enemies of the people’s rights last November, proves what a mighty factor the women of the Alliance have been in the political affairs of the nation.
I overheard yesterday morning at the hotel breakfast table a conversation between two gentlemen in regard to Ingalls. “I consider his defeat,” said the first speaker, “to be a national calamity.” "Your reasons,“ said the second. ”Why, he is such a brilliantly smart man,“ he replied. ”True,“ said the other; ”but he must needs be a smart man to be the consummate rascal he has proven himself to be.“ And I thought as I heard the remarks, ”Our opinion is also shared by men." You wonder, perhaps, at the zeal and enthusiasm of the Western women in this reform movement. Let me tell you why they are interested. Turn to your old school-maps and books of a quarter of a century ago, and you will find that what is now the. teeming and fruitful West was then known as the Treeless Plain, the Great American Desert. To this sterile and remote region, infested by savage beasts and still more savage men, the women of the New England States, the women of the cultured East, came with husbands, sons and brothers to help them build up a home upon the broad and vernal prairies of the West. We came with the roses of health on our cheek, the light of hope in our eyes, the fires of youth and hope burning in our hearts. We left the old familiar paths, the associations of home and the friends of childhood. We left schools and churches—all that made life dear—and turned our faces toward the setting sun. We endured hardships, dangers and privations; hours of loneliness, fear and sorrow; our little babes were born upon these wide, unsheltered prairies; and there, upon the sweeping prairies beneath the cedar trees our hands have planted to mark the sacred place, our little ones lie buried. We toiled in the cabin and in the field; we planted trees and orchards; we helped our loved ones to make the prairie blossom as the rose. The neat cottage took the place of the sod shanty, the log-cabin and the humble dug-out.
Yet, after all our years of toil and privation, dangers and hardships upon the Western frontier, monopoly is taking our homes from us by an infamous system of mortgage foreclosure, the most infamous that has ever disgraced the statutes of a civilized nation. It, takes from us at the rate of five hundred a month the homes that represent the best years of our life, our toil, our hopes, our happiness. How did it happen? The government, at the bid of Wall Street, repudiated its contracts with the people; the circulating medium was contracted in the interest of Shylock from $54 per capita to less than $8 per capita; or, as Senator [Preston] Plumb [of Kansas] tells us, “Our debts were increased, while the means to pay them was decreased;” or as grand Senator [William Morris] Stewart [of Nevada] puts it, “For twenty years the market value of the dollar has gone up and the market value of labor has gone down, till to-day the American laborer, in bitterness and wrath, asks which is the worst—the black slavery that has gone or the white slavery that has come?”
Do you wonder the women are joining the Alliance? I wonder if there is a woman in all this broad land who can afford to stay out of the Alliance. Our loyal, white-ribbon women should be heart and hand in this Farmers' Alliance movement, for the men whom we have sent to represent us are the only men in the councils of this nation who have not been elected on a liquor platform; and I want to say here, with exultant pride, that the five farmer Congressmen and the United States Senator we have sent up from Kansas—the liquor traffic, Wall Street, “nor the gates of hell shall not prevail against them.”
[At this point many women in the audience were severely shocked, and the orator explained that the phrase “gates of hell” was a quotation from the Bible.]
It would sound boastful were I to detail to you the active, earnest part the Kansas women took in the recent campaign. A Republican majority of 82,000 was reduced to less than 8,000 when we elected 97 representatives, 5 out of 7 Congressmen, and a United States Senator, for to the women of Kansas belongs the credit of defeating John J. Ingalls; He is feeling badly about it yet, too, for he said to-day that “women and Indians were the only class that would scalp a dead man.” I rejoice that he realises that he is politically dead.
I might weary you to tell you in detail how the Alliance women found time from cares of home and children to prepare the tempting, generous viands for the Alliance picnic dinners; where hungry thousands and tens of thousands gathered in the forests and groves to listen to the words of impassioned oratory, ofttimes from woman’s lips, that nerved the men of Kansas to forget their party prejudice and vote for “Mollie and the babies.” And not only did they find their way to the voters' hearts, through their stomachs, but they sang their way as well. I hold here a book of Alliance songs, composed and set to music by an Alliance woman, Mrs. Florence Olmstead of Butler County, Kan., that did much toward moulding public sentiment. Alliance Glee Clubs composed of women, gave us such stirring melodies as the nation has not heard since the Tippecanoe and Tyler campaign of 1840. And while I am individualizing, let me call your attention to a book written also by an Alliance woman. I wish a copy of it could be placed in the hands of every woman in this land. “The Fate of a Fool” is written by Mrs. Emma G. Curtis of Colorado. This book in the hands of women would teach them to be just and generous toward women, and help them to forgive and condone in each other the sins so sweetly forgiven when committed by men.
[Here the gavel announced that the time was up, but the speaker begged for and received a short extension.]
Let no one for a moment believe that this uprising and federation of the people is but a passing episode in politics. It is a religious as well as a political movement, for we seek to put into practical operation the teachings and precepts of Jesus of Nazareth. We seek to enact justice and equity between man and man. We seek to bring the nation back to the constitutional liberties guaranteed us by our forefathers. The voice that is coming up to day from the mystic chords of the American heart is the same voice that Lincoln heard blending with the guns of Fort Sumter and the Wilderness, and it is breaking into a clarion cry to-day that will be heard around the world.
Crowns will fall, thrones will tremble, kingdoms will disappear, the divine right of kings and the divine right of capital will fade away like the mists of the morning when the Angel of Liberty shall kindle the fires of justice in the hearts of men. “Exact justice to all, special privileges to none.” No more millionaires, and no more paupers; no more gold kings, silver kings and oil kings, and no more little waifs of humanity starving for a crust of bread. No more gaunt faced, hollow-eyed girls in the factories, and no more little boys reared in poverty and crime for the penitentiaries and the gallows. But we shall have the golden age of which Isaiah sang and the prophets have so long foretold; when the farmers shall be prosperous and happy, dwelling under their own vine and fig tree; when the laborer shall have that for which he toils; when occupancy and use shall be the only title to land, and every one shall obey the divine injunction, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” When men shall be just and generous, little less than gods, and women shall be just and charitable toward each other, little less than angels; when we shall have not a government of the people by capitalists, but a government of the people, by the people.
Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you.
Source: Mary Elizabeth Lease, Speech to the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, in Joan M. Jensen, With These Hands: Women Working on the Land (Old Westbury, N.Y.: The Feminist Press and McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981), 154–160.