THOMAS R. BURKHOLDER
"What you farmers need to do is raise less corn and more hell!" Thus, we are told, Mary Clyens Lease admonished Kansas farmers in 1890. According to Katherine Clinton, "every account of Populist history mentions this female orator. Yet her fame rests largely on [that] single piece of advice. . . . Ironically, Lease twice denied ever having made the famous statement" ( 1969:52). Nonetheless, through ignorance or perhaps a simple desire to tell a good story, historians and rhetoricians alike seized on the line and created a legend only slightly larger than the life of this remarkable woman. The advice she "allegedly gave to Kansas farmers," said O. Gene Clanton, "has come down to the present time undiminished, and is remembered by even the most casual student of American history" ( 1968, 190).
Despite Clyens Lease's notoriety as an orator, primarily as a leading voice of Populism in Kansas and throughout the nation, but also as an advocate of woman's rights and woman suffrage, until 1988 ( Burkholder, 1988) no detailed analysis of her discourse existed, nor was there a comprehensive collection of her speeches and essays. Populist rhetors as a group, however, have been studied ( Ecroyd, 1973, 1980; Gunderson, 1940). Her speeches and essays are scattered through unindexed copies of old newspapers, and, when located, they are often fragments rather than complete texts. Nevertheless, analysis of those texts reveals that Clyens Lease was a rhetor of considerable sophistication and wit and a formidable debater and campaigner with the ability to adapt her message to a variety of situations.
Mary Elizabeth Clyens was born in Ridgeway, Pennsylvania, on September 11, 1850, the sixth of eight children of Joseph P. and Mary Elizabeth Murray Clyens, Irish Catholics who immigrated sometime after 1842 ( Paulson, NAW 2:380; Clanton, 1968, gives 1853 as her birth date). In 1871, she moved to Osage Mission, Kansas, where she taught briefly at St. Ann's Academy for girls ( Blumberg, 1978:3). In 1873, she married Charles L. Lease, a local pharmacist. In 1874, the couple moved to Denison, Texas. There, she accepted the invitation of Sarah Acheson, wife of her husband's employer, to join the WCTU. "She was asked to speak at one of their meetings," Dorothy Rose Blumberg reported. "Her eloquence was the surprise of the evening and marked the first step toward her future career as orator and advocate" ( 1978:4). By 1884, the Lease family had moved again, first to a farm in Kingman County, Kansas, and eventually to Wichita, where she began her career as a professional lecturer. Clyens Lease