*This article was written by Melissa Callahan and was originally published on the Public History Year in Review website.
This year marks the ninety-fifth anniversary of the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. This year also marks an anniversary that is lesser known, but no less important in the long and often turbulent woman suffrage movement. In 1915, the Justice Bell, also known as the Women’s Liberty Bell, embarked on a historic tour of Pennsylvania. From June through November, suffragists took the Justice Bell to every county in the state to gather support prior to a vote by Pennsylvania’s all-male electorate on whether to amend the state Constitution to grant women the right to vote. The campaign was commemorated with a ceremony held at Washington Memorial Chapel in September and with an exhibit that is still on view at the Liberty Bell Center.
Katharine Wentworth Ruschenberger, a prominent member of the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association (PWSA), used her own money to commission the Justice Bell, which is a bronze reproduction of the famed Liberty Bell. Ruschenberger and other members of the PWSA took part in a ceremonial casting of the bell held at the Meneely foundry in New York on March 31, 1915. Ruschenberger also had the clapper of the bell symbolically chained and kept silent until women gained the right to vote. It was Ruschenberger’s hope that while “[t]he original Liberty Bell announced the creation of democracy, the women’s Liberty Bell [would] announce the completion of democracy.”
In order to haul the 2,000-pound bell from one county to the next, a flatbed truck had to be specially designed and built. Suffragists often delivered rousing speeches from the back of the truck alongside the bell. They held parades, rallies, and open-air meetings throughout the state. “Father, brother, husband, son, vote for Amendment Number One,” became a familiar rally cry.
Local media coverage of the tour was both generous and positive. The Harrisburg Telegraph, for example, reported that the ceremony that kicked off the tour in June “attracted one of the biggest crowds ever assembled” with “every man, woman, and child who could get away from home, office, or shop duties” in attendance. Philadelphia’s Evening Public Ledger ran a full-page feature in September. In Fulton County, the bell’s arrival made front page news, and The Patriot reported that “[m]ore than a million people [had] taken part in the wonderful receptions tendered to the bell on its triumphant tour of the western half of the State . . .”
Unfortunately for the suffragists, the bell’s clapper could not be unchained at the conclusion of the campaign on November 2, 1915, as Pennsylvania voters defeated the woman suffrage amendment by a ratio of 5-to-1. Similar defeats in New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts convinced many suffragists that it was time to move in a different direction. Although suffragists continued to lobby individual state legislatures, they turned greater attention to securing a national voting rights amendment. Once again, the Justice Bell hit the road, making appearances at political events as far south as Washington, D.C. and as far west as Illinois.
On June 4, 1919, the United States Senate passed a federal amendment that would extend voting rights to women. This initiated the process for ratification, which required thirty-six states to approve the amendment before it could become law. On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state to ratify, and on August 26 American women officially won the right to vote when U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution into law. After more than five years of silence, the peals of the Justice Bell would be heard for the first time on Independence Square a month later.
On September 25, 1920, a crowd of thousands gathered on Independence Square to celebrate the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. The crowd heard addresses by several prominent Pennsylvania suffragists, including Katharine Ruschenberger herself. Then, Ruschenberger’s teenaged niece Catharine Wentworth had the honor of ringing the Justice Bell for the very first time. During the festivities, members of the Women’s League for Good Government distributed pamphlets explaining voting procedures. The text of the pamphlets also appeared in the Evening Public Ledger.
Following the celebration, Ruschenberger asked the city of Philadelphia to house the Justice Bell permanently on Independence Square, but officials denied that request. Instead, the bell was taken to Valley Forge, where it was nearly forgotten. For several decades the bell, along with a treasure trove of photographs chronicling its 1915 sojourn across the state, remained more or less hidden from public view on the west side of Washington Memorial Chapel. It was “rediscovered” in 1995 after Reverend Richard Lyon Stinson, then rector of the chapel, reached out to Pennsylvania’s League of Women Voters (LWV).
To commemorate their organization’s seventy-fifth anniversary, in April 1995 League members transported the bell to Harrisburg, where it was displayed first in the Rotunda and then in the State Museum before embarking on a yearlong anniversary tour of the state. On August 22, 1996, the Justice Bell returned to Washington Memorial Chapel, where it remains on public display, at long last fulfilling Katharine Wentworth Ruschenberger’s final wishes.
To honor the centennial anniversary of the Justice Bell this year, Independence National Historical Park (INHP) unveiled a new exhibit in the Liberty Bell Center titled “Independence Hall & Votes for Women.” The idea and most of the research for the exhibit came from Holly Holst, a Park ranger at INHP since 2005. Holst’s initial research first produced a program called “Seeds to Suffrage,” which she describes as an exploration of “how, in many ways the beginnings of the suffrage movement can be traced back to Independence Hall, where our country began.” For example, Susan B. Anthony read the Declaration of Rights for Women near Independence Square on July 4, 1876 and in 1911, Alice Paul organized a summer campaign that culminated in a massive rally on Independence Square on September 30.
In 2012, knowing that the centennial was fast approaching, Holst began to focus her research on the Justice Bell campaign. Initially, she envisioned an exhibit focusing solely on the Justice Bell to commemorate the centennial. However, as the project progressed, she decided that “we really need to tell the whole story, so it became an exhibit about Independence Hall and votes for women.”
Although the Justice Bell campaign plays a prominent role, the first panel of the exhibit includes a portrait of Abigail Adams and her famous admonition to “remember the ladies” as well as the text of the Declaration of Sentiments drafted and signed in 1848 at the nation’s first women’s rights convention, held at Seneca Falls. N.Y. The next three panels present more images and highlights from the woman suffrage movement. The exhibit concludes with an opportunity for visitors to don “votes for women” sashes and take a selfie next to a life-sized portrait of an actual suffragist event. Visitors are also encouraged to cast votes to choose the next step toward women’s equality. The results of the voting are posted weekly at the exhibit and on the park’s Facebook page. The exhibit opened in August and is slated to run through November.
In addition to INHP’s exhibit, a group of local historians, along with representatives of the LWV and the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution hosted a ceremonial re-chaining of the bell’s clapper at Washington Memorial Chapel. Ruschenberger’s great niece was a featured guest at the ceremony, which was held on September 13. With the centennial anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment only five years away, one can not help but wonder whether there will be a ceremonial ringing of the bell as well. For the time being, we’ll have to keep an eye on the Bell’s official website for updates.
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