"Wall Street owns the country.
A quote from Occupy Wall Street? No.
It's Mary Elizabeth Lease speaking 125-years ago! She's also known for telling Kansas farmers to "raise less corn and more hell," but she swears a newspaper made that up.
Mary Lease was the wife of a struggling Kansas farmer, mother of four, and important figure in the Populist movement.
She became famous in the 1880s for her impassioned speeches for women’s suffrage, temperance, and justice for farmers and other working poor.
“You may call me an anarchist, a socialist, or a communist, I care not, but I hold to the theory that if one man has not enough to eat three times a day and another man has $25,000,000, that last man has something that belongs to the first.”
Known as the "Populist lady-warrior from Wichita," Lease mesmerized audiences in Kansas, Missouri, the Far West, and the South with her powerful voice and charismatic speaking style. The brief heyday of populism could not crack the two-party system of U.S. politics, but many of the reforms sought by Populists later became reality.
One of today's populist movements, Occupy Wall Street could have a similar impact, though critics saw it as a leaderless group of disaffected young people with no clear objective or agenda, and little power for change.
I felt I was witnessing history in the fall of 2011, while in the nation's capital researching my book Pure Grit, I snapped photos of the Occupiers at Zuccotti Park.
Occupy protesters popularized the catchphrase "We're the 99%" and spawned similar gatherings across the country in the two months before they were evicted by police from their camp near the New York Stock Exchange.
The protests triggered grass-roots movements to address issues as varied as the student debt crisis to oil pipelines and fracking, police brutality, racism and Bernie Sanders's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Some historians believe Mary Lease was able to feel and express popular agitation, acting more as a barometer of discontent than an originator and leader of reform.
After initial populist success, Mary seemed unable to cooperate with others in Kansas to build a political base. She refused to support a Populist-Democrat coalition
because she blamed the Democratic Party for the Civil War. Two of her brothers died fighting for the union and her father
died a captive in Andersonville prison.
She may have had her blind spots, but I admire Mary for her courage and perseverance in pursuing a law degree while raising four children and helping her husband run their farm.
Apparently she studied while scrubbing laundry by pinning sheets of notes above her wash tub. Mary was admitted to the bar in 1885, one of very few female
Her experience of working hard for the American dream and remaining in poverty powered her activism, as it does today's low wage workers demands for a higher minimum wage.
Micah White one of the founders Occupy Wall Street says despite how it may have empowered movements like Black Lives Matter, the protests did not stop President Trump from winning election.
White says if protest, if emotional rhetoric, doesn't translate to votes on election day it will not create change. "American activists must move from detached indignation to revolutionary engagement."
If Mary Lease were alive today, she'd be dusting off her old speeches and perhaps figuring out how to turn fiery words into real change.
I'm fascinated to discover little-known stories of history. Stories of people and events that provide a new perspective on why and how things happened, new voices that haven't been heard, insight into how the past brought us here today, and how it might guide us to a better future.
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