Pennsylvania Historic Preservation

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The Triumphant Note of Women’s Equality: the Justice Bell & Women’s Suffrage

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One hundred years ago, the clapper of the Justice Bell was unchained for the first time so that it could ring out in jubilation to celebrate the ratification of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. 

Suffragists had worked unceasingly for decades for the right to vote before finally achieving their goal in 1920. 

The Justice Bell Idea

Chester County suffragist Katharine Wentworth Ruschenberger had conceived of the idea of the “Justice Bell.” This replica of the Liberty Bell -without the famous crack – could be taken on tour throughout the commonwealth to draw attention to the cause of women’s suffrage. 

She paid $2,000 for the bell, which was forged by the Meneely Bell Foundry in West Troy, NY in March 31, 1915. 

“Casting the suffrage liberty bell at Troy.” Image from the Library of Congress, George Grantham Bain Collection, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014698748/.

The bronze bell had “Establish Justice” engraved on its side and its clapper was purposely chained to prevent its ringing as a symbol of the silenced voices of women deprived of the vote.   

The 1915 Tour

In the summer of 1915, the Justice Bell began its tour of all 67 Pennsylvania counties in the hopes of influencing male voters to vote yes on a state referendum on suffrage in November 1915.  A group of suffragists accompanied the bell on a flatbed truck throughout Pennsylvania with the first stop in Sayre, Bradford County.  

“Woman’s Liberty Bell Starts on Record Trip,” Adams County Independent, July 2, 1915. Caption states “Huge and enthusiastic crowds greet the historic suffrage symbol at all towns and cross-roads on tour through State – women seeking the ballot are jubilant over the bell’s reception.”

Interestingly, support for the voting rights referendum was strong in the north and west counties of the state but lacking in the heavily populated southeast and southcentral regions.   This short piece talks about the bell’s trip through Union County in 1915.

Pittsburgh’s Jennie Bradley Roessing drove the Justice Bell to campaign events in all 67 counties. Photograph from the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

Unfortunately, the 1915 state referendum giving women the right to vote was defeated at the polls in November. Pennsylvania’s suffragists were bitterly disappointed but they continued to take the Justice Bell on tour for the cause in Pennsylvania and beyond.  

The 1920 Celebration

Five years later, the 19th amendment was fully ratified and became law on August 26, 1920. Suffragists and advocates planned a victory celebration in Philadelphia featuring the long-awaited ringing of the Justice Bell.

Pennsylvania’s Governor Sproul signing suffrage amendment. Photograph from the Library of Congress, Harris & Ewing Collection, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016870446/

On September 25, 1920, a large cheering crowd gathered in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia to witness the occasion and hear the speeches of political and suffrage leaders.  

Philadelphia Mayor J. Hampton Moore (an opponent of suffrage) welcomed women into the “realm of American citizenship… in the presence of the sanctity of this sacred building.”  

PA Governor Sproul, who had signed the state’s ratification of the 19th amendment, spoke of the historic importance of women’s suffrage and called the event one of the four greatest events in American history:  “The first was the declaration of independence, the second the adoption of our Constitution, the third the wiping out of slavery and the fourth the accomplishment of equal rights for women.”  

Mrs. Maud Wood Park, national chairman of the National League of Women Voters and Dr. M. Cary Thomas, president of Bryn Mawr College , both prominent suffrage leaders, paid tribute to the pioneers of  the movement who did not live to see their dreams realized.  

Katherine Wentworth Ruschenberger told of the significance of the Justice Bell and gave her teenage niece, Katharine Wentworth, the honor of ringing the bell for the first time.   

This announcement for the upcoming bell ringing and celebration was front and center on the front page of Philadelphia’s Evening Public Ledger for September 25, 1920. Caption says, “Just as the old bell in Independence Hall rang out the wonderful news of Independence in the long ago will this one this afternoon sound the triumphant note of women’s equality. Miss Catherine Wentworth, of Roanoke, Va., will tug the rope that will move the clapper.From Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045211/1920-09-25/ed-1/seq-1/

Surrounded by 48 women dressed in suffragist white to represent all the states in the union, the bell pealed 48 times.   In many communities throughout Pennsylvania and the nation, bells were rung in celebration at the same time.

Finding a Home

Ruchenberger wanted the Justice Bell to remain on display in Philadelphia, but the state legislature refused her request, so for some years it stayed in the backyard of her home.

In 1943, she deeded it to the Washington Memorial Chapel in the Valley Forge National Park.  It remained there on the park grounds in a chicken wire cage, but not on public view, for 50 years. 

In 1992 Rev. Richard Lyon Stinson became the new rector of the Chapel and began to raise funds to properly display the Justice Bell, which played such an important role in securing voting rights for women in Pennsylvania. Working with League of Women Voters and the Daughters of the American Revolution, Stinson was able to arrange for the installation of the Justice Bell in the carillon rotunda of the chapel where it remains today on permanent display.

The Justice Bell display in the Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge. Photograph from Library of Congress, Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project, Carol M. Highsmith Archive: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2019689473/.

Anniversary

On June 25, 2019, Pennsylvania’s First Lady Frances Wolf went to Valley Forge National Park to ring the Justice Bell in commemoration of the 100-year anniversary of Pennsylvania General Assembly’s vote to ratify the 19th Amendment.  

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has a website to celebrate women’s suffrage and educate the public about this important accomplishment.  The Justice Bell Foundation has a website devoted to the Justice Bell and this important anniversary.   

Valley Forge National Historical Park, the site of the Continental Army winter encampment in 1777-1778 is a place which shows the sacrifice and determination of Americans fighting to have a voice in their own government and future.  Thus, Katherine Ruschenberger found the right home for the Justice Bell in 1942, even if it took half a century for it to assume a place of honor in the beautiful Gothic Revival style Washington Memorial Chapel.

So, here’s to the ladies (and gentlemen) who made that happen and helped preserve an important part of the women’s suffrage story in Pennsylvania.  

Author: Pamela Reilly

Pamela Wolf Reilly is a Historic Preservation Specialist in the Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Office in Harrisburg. She holds a BA in Art and Sociology from Bucknell University and a MA in Historic Preservation from George Washington University. Pamela is an architectural historian who admits to being a bit of a pushover for buildings with a pretty facade. She also has a special interest in vernacular architecture.

One Comment

  1. Thank you Pamela for the enlightening article on this very important event and the involvement of Pennsylvanian’s in the passage of the 19th Amendment. I had never heard of the Justice Bell before your article and look forward to some day visiting the Washington Memorial Chapel.

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