What would Mary Elizabeth Lease think?
In the heart of Wichita, a statue of the famed 19-century Populist leader has been placed where crowds are sure to pass, compliments of the club she started.
The statue was placed in the summer by the Hypatia Club, the state’s oldest women’s club. Members of the club paid $65,000 to have local sculptor Babs Mellor create a likeness of Lease.
“We started out with another sculptor but she wanted to do something that was far out — you had to use your imagination for what it was. And, we decided we liked the real thing better,” said Josephine Brown, the club president.
The group has been working on the sculpture project for a year and a half. It is expected to be dedicated this spring. It’s been placed between Century II and the Wichita Public Library .
No doubt, Lease would have found a certain irony in the sculpture praising her efforts exactly 126 years after she moved mindsets as to what women could do, if they wanted.
In the beginning it would have been easy to give up.
In January of 1886 she raised the ire of Wichita Eagle publisher Marshall Murdock when she took out an ad in his newspaper.
Her ad in the Jan. 21, 1886, Eagle read: “We would most earnestly invite the intelligent women of Wichita, the artists, the musicians, teachers, actors, lecturers, and all women having the advancement of their sex in view, to meet Saturday, Jan. 23 at 3 o’clock at the residence of Mrs. Harry Hill, 321 Topeka Avenue.”
Murdock wrote an editorial urging husbands to keep their wives at home. The idea was simply unheard of in a Victorian society in which women catered to their men and, at best, only met to exchange recipes and for quilting bees. Lease wanted more.
In the beginning, it was as if God himself conspired against her and the club.
On the day of the meeting, temperatures were bitterly cold and a blizzard was raging as nine women banded together to form the Hypatia Club. The women named themselves after Hypatia, a fifth-century Greek female philosopher and educator who was persecuted and killed for her belief in open thought and discussion. Lease later went on to become a forceful national spokeswoman for the Populist Party during the 1890s and eventually moved from Wichita.
But the club and the ideals that she and the eight original members had established flourished.
By 1934, the Hypatia Club had grown so much — with so many of Wichita’s most prominent women as its members — that they bought a house on North Broadway as a place to have meetings.
The prairie square house at 1215 N. Broadway was designed and built in 1897 by Ulysses Grant Charles, a noted Wichita architect.
By the 1980s, the house — which still maintains many of its original windows, mirrors and plumbing fixtures — was in disrepair. The porches were falling off, the gutters hadn’t been cleaned out in years and water was beginning to enter the house through the rotting wood walls.
Club members applied for and were able to get the house nominated and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in the mid-1990s. They have since sold it and used a portion of the proceeds from the house to buy the statue. Helene Fuller Mitchell, a past president of the club who championed the efforts to get the statue, said she did so because “I feel like we are a part of Kansas history.”
“She (Lease) was an incredible role model when she couldn’t even vote,” said club member Jackie Nagel. The 19th Amendment, allowing women the right to vote, was not ratified until Aug. 26, 1920.
Still, Lease and the women of Hypatia did what they could to make lives better.
A plaque at the memorial reads:
“The memorial is dedicated to the memory of Mary Elizabeth Lease and the nine women who drove their horses and buggies through the snow blizzard of 1886 to meet and set a new direction for women in the prairie city of Wichita … It is a memorial to what the Hypatia women have accomplished to further the common good and general welfare of the people of the community.”
As a group, the women of Hypatia were able to:
• Start the first formal welfare agency in 1887.
• Start the first garbage pickup service in Wichita in 1901.
• Help two club members became the first women to be elected to Wichita’s school board in 1913.
Their members, which have remained some of the most prominent family names in Wichita, have through the decades contributed significantly to local museums and the arts.
Lease championed women’s rights, helping establish the Wichita Equal Suffrage Association.
In 1890, Lease embarked on a speaking tour for the Populist Party, campaigning primarily against Sen. John J. Ingalls, the Republican incumbent. He lost the election.
It was a time when mortgage foreclosures and sheriff’s sales filled the newspapers. "Wall Street owns the country," lamented Lease.
"Kansas had better stop raising corn and begin raising hell," she told farmers.
She was called the "People’s Joan of Arc," because of her efforts to rally and build the Populist movement.
And now, 126 years after her club was started, what would Mary Elizabeth Lease think of the statue that’s been placed in the heart of Wichita, which is a short distance away from where Occupy Wichita has held signs of protest?
“What would Mary Elizabeth Lease think? I think she would say you’ve come a long way, baby,” said Brown, the Hypatia Club president. “Would she be happy? Well, we are still supporting some of the things she supported.”