Silent No More: Women's Suffrage and the Justice Bell

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Silent No More: Women's Suffrage and the Justice Bell

2016-08-18 12:39

Upon the 19th Amendment's ratification on this day in 1920, Philadelphia was the largest city – and Pennsylvania the largest state – in which women had not previously had the right to vote.

This was not for want of trying.

In the struggle to secure woman suffrage, Pennsylvania women counted themselves among the movement's prominent leaders. Individuals such as Dora Lewis and Caroline Katzenstein were active in the Pennsylvania and national branches of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and the National Woman’s Party (NWP), two organizations instrumental in the passage and ratification of the 19th Amendment

The struggle of Pennsylvania suffragists to secure the vote for women, however, long predated 1920. During today's anniversary, consider the story of Katherine Wentworth Ruschenberger and the Women’s Justice Bell Tour of 1915.

Last summer, your correspondent joined thousands of folks from across the country at Independence Mall to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first "Annual Reminder" picket, the earliest recurring gay-rights demonstration in the United States.

In 1965, 40 buttoned-up protesters politely demanded their full rights as citizens of the United States in front of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, which was then still housed inside the hall.

The setting was not spontaneous. The Reminder's organizers strategically selected these twin totems of freedom because of their enduring power and familiarity.

Detail from brochure distributed at Independence Hall during the Fourth Annual Reminder on July 4, 1968. Click here to view the full size image.

In doing so, they were following in a long tradition of civil rights groups that had also used these symbols for the same reasons, including Pennsylvania suffragists more than a century ago.

Unlike the understated Reminder protesters in front of the Liberty Bell, women seeking the vote took a more sensational approach in 1915. They decided to make their own bell.

By 1915, the once-fractious women's rights movement had coalesced around a single issue: getting the vote. Disagreement persisted, however, in terms of tactics and emphasis. How to persuade male voters? Quiet, behind-the-scenes lobbying or public demonstrations? Should reform efforts target the state or federal level?

With the support of more than 70,000 members across the commonwealth, the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association (PWSA) pressured the state legislature to become the first east of the Mississippi to grant women full voting rights.

Detail from a 1915 portrait of Caroline Katzenstein, secretary of the Pennsylvania branch of the National American Woman's Suffrage Association (NAWSA). From the Caroline Katzenstein papers [Am .8996]Click here to view the full size image.

The all-male body hemmed and hawed before resolving to put the issue on the ballot for the (all-male) electorate to decide.

Katherine Wentworth Ruschenberger, a prominent leader in the PWSA, believed the enfranchisement of women to be a simple matter of justice.

"The issue this year is clean cut," the Strafford, Chester County, resident said. "Shall women have the power of the ballot, without which you men would be serfs, in order to express our own needs and demands?"

To Ruschenberger, the denial of the vote to women reeked of the same injustice of the British crown's despotic rule that had inspired the American Revolution 150 years prior.

To draw Pennsylvanians' support for Amendment No. 1 –  as the November 1915 suffrage referendum came to be known – Ruschenberger turned to that symbol inextricably linked with the struggle of freedom vs. tyranny: the Liberty Bell.

Detail from a photograph of the 1915 Women's Liberty Bell Tour. From the League of Women Voters records [2095]. Click here to view the full size image.

At her own expense, Ruschenberger commissioned a one-ton bronze copy of the nearly 200-year-old bell to be cast. She passed on reproducing the celebrated crack, and added "Establish Justice" to the original's Old Testament inscription: "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof."

Ruschenberger also shackled the bell's clapper with giant chains to make her message as clear as a chime: Its peals would not be heard until women won the vote. Silence can be louder than clangor.

"The original Liberty Bell announced the creation of democracy; the Women's Liberty Bell will announce the completion of democracy," she avowed.

Detail from a photograph of the 1915 Women's Liberty Bell Tour. From the League of Women Voters records [2095]Click here to view the full size image.

To spread the word, the PWSA mapped out a whistle-stop tour of the Justice Bell - as it is also known - across the commonwealth. Lashing the bell to a flatbed truck - also supplied by Ruschenberger - that doubled as the group's automotive soapbox, the suffragists kicked off the Women's Liberty Bell Tour in Bradford County.

"Father, brother, husband, son, vote for Amendment One," the suffragists broadcast to the throngs of men and women gathering to see the mute bell in Pennsylvania's 67 counties.

"A blare of trumpets and a storm of cheers" greeted the bell at every "open-air meeting held at all convenient stopping places, from crossroads to public squares," observed The Philadelphia Inquirer.

A stamp designed by Caroline Katzenstein supporting women's suffrage distributed prior to the defeat of Amendment  No. 1 in 1915. From the Caroline Katzenstein papers [Am .8996]Click here to view the full size image.

In Wilkes-Barre, Mayor John V. Kosek bellowed to the crowd from atop the suffragists' truck: "On behalf of the city, I desire to welcome the Liberty Bell and the ladies who have brought it. And I'm awfully sorry you can't vote, because I want you to vote for me this next election."

The bell's 5,000-mile tour wrapped up in West Chester in November, just in time for the referendum. Despite the enthusiasm and media coverage, Amendment No. 1 did not pass.

Detail from a map published by the Pennsylvania Men's League for Woman Suffrage depicting the votes for and against Amendment No. 1 in Pennsylvania by county. From the Caroline Katzenstein papers [Am .8996]. Click here to view the full size image.

Undeterred, Ruschenberger and other suffragists staked out an even more ambitious agenda: an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Justice Bell was again enlisted, embarking for rallies and parades as far away as Chicago.

After nearly five more years of campaigning, the 19th Amendment was ratified Aug. 18, 1920. It read, in part: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."

Detail from a portrait of Alice Paul, an American suffragist, feminist, and architect of the 1910s campaign for the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which prohibits sex discrimination in the right to vote. From the Caroline Katzenstein papers [Am .8996]Click here to view the full size image.

The following September, Ruschenberger unfastened the clapper's chains at a ceremony at Independence Hall. Flanked by Pennsylvania Gov. William Cameron Sproul and Philadelphia Mayor J. Hampton Moore, Ruschenberger's 17-year-old niece, Katherine Wentworth - dressed as Lady Liberty - had the pleasure of the inaugural tug.

For a view of what a mint-condition Liberty Bell would have looked like when it first arrived in Philadelphia centuries ago, visit the Justice Bell at the Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge National Historical Park, where it resides, in keeping with Ruschenberger's last request.

Detail from a photograph of the 1915 Women's Liberty Bell Tour. From the League of Women Voters records [2095]Click here to view the full size image.

The collections of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) contain a wealth of documentary evidence of women’s historical experience spanning the earliest colonial settlements through the twentieth century, including manuscripts, published material, graphics, and more

For educators, HSP has created several unit plans and other resources for teaching the stories of women's suffrage.

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