With more women than usual being elected to governmental offices in the recent election, I thought about a Denison woman who played a role in government, business, home, church and virtually every aspect of life in the late 1800s.
Mary Elizabeth Lease came out of the shadows into the foreground and did her part in shaping our country’s course long before the Women’s Liberation Movement was even a thought.
She addressed a meeting of the newly formed Denison Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the 1800s as one of her first moves down the road to national fame to become the Populist Party’s Joan of Arc.
While the roll women played in America’s history was given little attention in most instances, women, in a hundred different ways, helped to shape the country. Many of them led very productive lives despite the limits placed on them by society and family. She was one of those women.
She lived in Denison for about 10 years and then moved to Kingman, Kansas, while she was still a young women. Five children were born there to her and only three survived.
She and her young husband, Charles, came to Denison in 1874 after losing their farm and stock in Kansas. They were told that on the other side of the Indian Territory was Texas.
“The new Missouri Kansas and Texas Railroad — the MK&T that everybody was calling the Katy — ended in a brand new growing town called Denison,” according to information in the book “Queen of the Populists” by Richard Stiller.
The young couple hoped that Charles could find work as a druggist or maybe even own his own druggist shop here. Stiller described Denison at the time as “a town full of rough, wild, desperate men, a thieves’ and murderer’s capitol.”
It was also a respectable place, according to Stiller, with Main Street reserved for respectable businesses and Skiddy Street (now Chestnut), a block away limited to “disorderly houses, tipping shops, barrooms, bawdy houses, etc.”
Charles Lease found a job as a clerk in Dr. Alex Acheson’s drugstore on Main Street between Rusk and Austin avenues.
Dr. Acheson’s wife, Sarah, invited Mary Lease to speak at the historic meeting of the newly formed Women’s Christian Temperance Union in her home. The temperance movement was second only in women’s hearts to the growing campaign for women’s suffrage.
By 1875, about 150 communities in Texas had adopted local prohibition laws and Grayson County was a stronghold of the temperance movement, primarily because Denison was such a heavy drinking place.
Mary Lease was an early recruit to the temperance movement. She attended meetings in Sarah Acheson’s house and other women found that she was not a quiet person once she had the floor and had something to say.
She got quite vocal when she spoke of the evils of drink and the importance of making Denison a respectable moral community in which to rear children. When Mrs. Acheson and the “group” held a public meeting to call attention to the temperance movement, it was natural that Mary Lease be asked to speak.
Speaking before the Temperance women was her first public speech, but she enjoyed every minute of it and was said to have had a natural gift of speaking. The women made a big fuss over the shy young wife of the drug store clerk, who was like most men of the time and not overly pleased with his wife’s actions.
Mrs. Acheson probably was the greatest influence of Mary Lease. Sarah Acheson also left her print on early Denison as an organizer and officer of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She was credited with having launched Mary Lease into a career that later achieved national fame.
In the spring of 1883, Charles and Mary Lease and their three children gathered up their savings and belongings and moved back to Kingman, Kansas, where she went on to rally the farmers by telling them, “what you farmers need to do is raise less corn and more hell,” as she campaigned vigorously for the Populist Party.
Mary Lease was a tall structural woman, five feet, 10 inches tall. She is said to have possessed a beautiful speaking voice before a crowd of 20,000 people, both men and women, gathered to listen. Although her lectures and speeches covered a wide range of subjects, she was a promoter of Women’s Liberation.
Mary Lease was an ardent believer in women’s right to vote and had followers all across the nation. When the National Council of Women of the United States held its first meeting in Washington, the group invited her to speak on “Women in the Farmer’s Alliance,” — also known as the Populist Party.
Mary told her story that made such am impression on the New York Review of Books that it called her “the Joan of Arc of the Farmers and working men in Kansas.”
Mary Lease died on Oct. 20, 1933. She is remembered as the first important woman politician in American history for her part in rallying the farmers of Kansas into fighting government and political parties who had turned their backs on them and forming their own Populist Party.
And Denison was the first stepping stone to Mary Lease’s memorable career.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. She has been a longtime contributor to the Herald Democrat with her column. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.