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"Establish Justice"


Today, 107 years ago, on August 11, 1915, people lined the main street of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, to witness a phenomenon—a truck carrying a 2,000 pound replica of the iconic Liberty Bell. Known as the Justice Bell, the replica was the brilliant idea of suffragist Katherine Wentworth Ruschenberger who had the words "establish justice" added to the inscription on the Justice Bell, noting that those significant words were not on the original Liberty Bell. (first image) Ruschenberger financed and supervised the casting of the bell, also known as the women's liberty bell. Second image is of Ruschenberger at the casting of the bell. As was typical of publicity savvy suffragists, she made the casting a photogenic event. She had the bell's clapper chained, not to be unchained until women were enfranchised.


A referendum to enfranchise women was on the ballot in four states in 1915: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts. A win in any of the four states would mean the enfranchisement of the first women east of the Mississippi. Massive creative all-encompassing campaigns were launched in every state. In Pennsylvania, a sturdy truck carried the Justice Bell through al 67 counties, getting close to where I grew up in the northwest corner of the state. (Left and Right images) The tour garnered nation-wide publicity.


The next image appeared along with an artlcle, "Suffragists Hold Colorful Parade,"on the front page of The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 23, 1915. It was an all-day and into the night event celebrating the arrival of the Justice Bell.. The caption identifies the top picture as the Justice Bell's escorts; on the left is the Justice Bell with its special guardian, on the right is a delegation of settlement workers, carrying battery-powered illuminated lanterns for the spectacular nighttime parade. The emphasis on decorum and beauty, one reporter pointed out, was to assure the public that voting women would not destabilize the existing male-dominated social order.

Male voters in all four states decisively defeated the referenda to enfranchise women. (Throughout the long fight for the vote, women in Pennsylvania never got even a shred of voting rights. In New Jersey where women had voted between 1776-1807; women subsequently got a sliver of voting rights; women in Massachusetts got partial voting rights; a referendum won in New York in 1917.)

After 1915, the Justice Bell made other appearances, including in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and in the victory parade in Harrisburg after the legislature ratified the 19th Amendment in 1919. On September 25, 1920, the Justice Bell's clapper was unchained by a woman wearing a white robe gown draped in gold representing justice. Catherine Wentworth, Katherine's niece, pulled the rope to ring the bell forty-eight times, once for each state. In his speech the governor of Pennsylvania, William Sprout, declared that the 19th Amendment "is one of the four greats occasions in American history." (The first was the Declaration of Independence; the second, the adoption of our Constitution; the third, the "wiping out of slavery." (Note: discriminatory federal laws prevented some groups of women and men from voting. In southern states, violence and racist laws made it dangerous and difficult for Black Americans to vote, although both women and men did prevail and cast their ballot.)

Katherine Wentworth Ruschenberger died in 1943. “Suffrage Leader Succumbs at 90 in Strafford Home," read her obituary. In her will, Ruschenberger left the Justice Bell in trust for display at the Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge National Park. I visited

the impressive display in 2018.

A historical marker on the National Votes for Women Trail (NVWT) was recently

dedicated in Williamspor, Pennsylvaniat. Here is a link to the NVWT, a project of the National Collaborative for Women's History Sites http://ncwhs.org/votes-for-women-trail/#trail You can read more about the arduous, fascinating, and comprehensive women's suffrage campaign in my book The Vote: Women's Fierce Fight.


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