Since the mid-nineteenth century, women suffragists had tried everything to win the right to vote. In 1915, the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association (PWSA) began an aggressive campaign with an estimated 70,000 members across the state. Pennsylvania Legislature passed a suffrage referendum and left it to voters–all men– to decide on. Katharine Wentworth Ruschenberger (1853-1943), member of the PWSA of Chester County, decided it was time for a women’s liberty bell. She called it the Justice Bell. Jennie Bradley Roessing (1882-1963) described the Justice Bell as “an exact bronze replica of the famous liberty bell. But its clapper will be silenced by chains fastened to its yoke and will swing only when Pennsylvania women are free.”
The Justice Bell started a 5,000-mile tour of all sixty-seven counties in Pennsylvania. A special truck was designed to carry the bell with suffragists. The truck bed served as a stage for suffragists to address the crowds gathered at each stop. It was an opportunity for women to justify wanting the right to vote. These women began a new chapter in the Liberty Bell’s history, and for themselves.
Parades and rallies were held across the state. The suffragists encouraged voters to show support for the referendum by mailing in pledge cards to the PWSA headquarters in Harrisburg. At the end of the tour, Ruschenberger told the Chester County Press, “The bell comes back to its own home after making a complete tour of the State and standing in front of Independence Hall, Philadelphia, only a few yards from the Liberty Bell, of which it is its counterpart.” It was a fitting homecoming. Chester County was the only county in the Philadelphia region to vote in favor of the referendum.
The suffrage referendum did not pass, but this was not a failure for women. Women gained a voice by campaigning and canvassing the land. The most pivotal moment in the Justice Bell’s story was not during the 1915 tour. It was on September 25, 1920, when the Justice Bell rang for the first time on Independence Square.
Crowds filled the block to celebrate the Nineteenth Amendment. Katharine Ruschenberger delivered a speech, but when it came time to ring the Justice Bell, she left it to the next generation of women to release it from silence. With a few swift tugs, in the shadow of Independence Hall, Ruschenberger’s niece rang the Justice Bell for the first time. In her will, Ruschenberger quoted former Pennsylvania Governor William Cameron Sproul (1870-1928) as saying, “The adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment is the fourth outstanding event in the history of the United States.”
Visitors to the Liberty Bell’s home at Independence National Historical Park often encounter an exhibit on the Justice Bell. The Justice Bell can be found at Washington’s Memorial Chapel, in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Its story is told through a small exhibit at its base. Because of the Justice Bell, and the suffragists who led the 1915 campaign, women everywhere have a special chapter in the Liberty Bell’s history.
— Text by Holly Jean Holst, a park ranger in interpretation at Independence National Historical Park since 2005. Holst was first introduced to the Justice Bell as an intern for Valley Forge National Historical Park in 2004. Currently she specializes in programs regarding women’s history, specifically the Women’s Suffrage Movement and its connections to National Park Service sites in the Philadelphia area.