The Justice Bell Story
In 1915, suffragists in Pennsylvania were looking for a way to drum up support for an amendment to the state constitution that would give women the right to vote. A referendum to approve such an amendment would appear on the ballot in the November election, so there was no time to waste. They needed to launch a campaign to win the hearts and minds of the male voters who would go to the polls. They needed to create some buzz.
That’s when Chester County activist Katharine Wentworth Ruschenberger came up with an idea. Why not make a replica of the Liberty Bell, one of the nation’s most enduring symbols of freedom, and drive it around the state on a multi-county tour? Throw in a few parades, some brass bands and an assortment of flags and banners, and who wouldn’t sit up and take notice?
Ruschenberger offered to pay the $2,000 cost and soon members of the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association traveled to the Meneely Bell Company in Troy, New York, to kick off the casting of the 2000-lb. bronze replica.
The words Establish Justice were engraved on the bell and its clapper was chained to its side, not to be rung until women were silenced no more. The original Liberty Bell “announced the creation of democracy,” Ruschenberger said, and “the women’s Liberty Bell will announce the completion of democracy.”
All summer and up until Election Day, a detail of suffragists escorted the bell around the state on a flatbed truck. In town after town, crowds rushed out to witness the unusual spectacle amid fanfare and hype. Surely this gutsy effort would pay off.
Alas, the state referendum failed in the face of entrenched opposition. But over the next few years, as suffragists continued their fight for the vote, the Justice Bell became a galvanizing symbol not just in Pennsylvania but around the country.
Finally, in 1920, after passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that granted women the right to vote, the Justice Bell was finally rung in a huge celebration at Independence Square in Philadelphia.
From there, it was on to … well, what exactly did happen to this celebrated symbol?
The bell ended up in Ruschenberger’s backyard after the male city leaders denied a request for it to remain in Philadelphia. In 1943, Ruschenberger passed away and deeded it to Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania and there it sat on the property, in a chicken-wire cage in the woods, for five decades.
Enter Rev. Richard Lyon Stinson, who arrived at the church as new rector in 1992. Stinson decided the bell deserved a new lease on life. Three years later, it was installed in the rotunda of the bell tower.
In 2020, as the bell was being transported to Independence Square in Philadelphia for an event to honor the 19th Amendment, it fell off the truck and was damaged. The Justice Bell no longer resides at Washington Memorial Chapel and there is no information about where it is, or when or if it will return.