Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Story of Mary

Mary Elizabeth Lease, Wichita Library Lawn
Rudyard Kipling wrote, If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.  I love that quote!  Although I never put it so simply, it is exactly what I am trying to do in telling the story of Isaac B. Werner, his community, and the populist movement of the late 1800s.  The story about the populist movement, in which working class people--farmers, factory workers, miners, ranchers--came together politically to confront what they saw as excessive political influence by the wealthy men of the Gilded Age, is a great drama which most of us today know little about.  Isaac recorded in his journal a first hand account of the movement and the many leaders he heard speak, and one of those influential Populist speakers was Kansan, Mary Elizabeth Lease.  Let me tell you her story!

Mary Elizabeth Lease came to Kansas to teach in the Osage Mission, met and married a successful man, and enjoyed a comfortable life until the economic depression of 1874.  They moved to Texas and started over, from scratch, and it was there that she became involved in the Women's Christian Temperance Union.  Her organizing and speaking activities for the WCTU led to her involvement in women's rights, declaring, "There is no difference between the mind of a smart man and that of a smart woman."

Plaque, Wichita Library Lawn
They returned to Kansas, first living in Kingman, where she published articles in the local paper and studied law at home, juggling all of this with responsibilities as wife and mother.  They moved to Wichita, where she supplemented her legal studies reading law with a local attorney, and she was admitted to the Bar.  Her political involvement began with the Union Labor Party, but as the non-political Farmers' Alliance morphed into the People's Party she, like most other populists in Kansas, shifted her allegiance to that party. She became a paid speaker and a newspaper editor, always focusing on Prohibition, women's suffrage, and economic reforms.  In 1890, when the Populists challenged Republican US Senator Ingalls, Mrs. Lease traveled Kansas in support of William A. Peffer, giving 160 speeches on his behalf during the campaign season.  Following Peffer's victory, Mrs. Lease was often called, "the woman who beat Senator Ingalls."  At a time when women did not have the vote, she made a difference.

She was one of the most effective Populist orators and strategists, but she was provocative and intolerant of being marginalized by leaders who either disagreed with her or were disinclined to regard a woman with full respect.  Her place in the populist movement declined with the decline of the movement itself, and she is too little remembered and respected in history.

Mary Elizabeth Lease
Isaac B. Werner was among her strongest supporters, and he traveled to hear her speak, was published in her newspaper, and corresponded with her regularly.  It was through his journal entries that I first became acquainted with Mary Elizabeth Lease, and finding research about her was challenging.  You can imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that a larger-than-life bronze statue of Mrs. Lease stands on the lawn between the Wichita Public Library and Century II!  She was a strikingly beautiful woman, nearly six feet tall and quite slender for a woman of her times who had borne five children.  She could hold the attention of a crowd for three hours, modulating her voice from a whisper to a challenging call to arms.

Remember her story!  Mary Elizabeth Lease made a difference, not only to the Populist Movement in Kansas but also to all of us today who take for granted many of the Populist ideas that have become a part of our nation.

(You can enlarge the images by clicking on them.)

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