By Cathy Pickles, NWHM staff member
I just spent a wonderful weekend in Philadelphia, which included a long overdue pilgrimage to see the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. There is something deeply stirring about being in the presence of such a potent symbol of the struggle for our nation’s independence. But it was a display a few yards from the venerable bell itself which both taught me a valuable history lesson and literally made my heart swell with pride. It was the story of the “Justice Bell” financed by a Pennsylvania suffragist in 1915.
Katharine Wentworth Ruschenberger commissioned a replica of the Liberty Bell to help spread the cause of woman suffrage in Pennsylvania. The inscription on the bell likened the denial of votes for women to the tyranny of English rule which fueled the American Revolution. It differed from its brother only in that it lacked a crack and bore the inscription, Establish Justice.
The 2,000 pound bell became something of a sensation. It toured 5,000 miles in a flatbed truck built specifically for this purpose, criss-crossing Pennsylvania. It eventually appeared at suffrage events in Chicago and Washington, DC. Its travels were marked by large crowds and band-led parades. Miniature versions of the bell were sold to defray the cost of its tour.
It was a media darling.
The bell’s clapper was chained into silence until the passage of the 19th Amendment. In a ceremony held in Independence Square in September, 1920, the bell was raised and rung by a woman dressed as Justice, signaling true liberty in the United States: suffrage for women. The Justice Bell now resides in the Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge.
I was ecstatic that this powerful (and unknown to me) chapter of women’s history was featured prominently in the presence of one of our most enduring national symbols. But in the same moment, I couldn’t help thinking about the thousands of inspiring women’s stories just like it scattered across the country. Unless a little girl living in Nevada, Kansas or Georgia visits the Liberty Bell or stumbles upon this story while surfing the web, she will never be have a chance to be inspired by the Justice Bell. That is precisely why the National Women’s History Museum must become a brick-and-mortar depository for chronicling the lives and achievements of American women. There has to be a place for all Americans to gather to celebrate and learn from the lives of their grandmothers, mothers, sisters and daughters.
Women who wanted the vote helped finance the Justice Bell tour with their spare “nickels and dimes” and did so during wartime. Current economic times are also hard, though nickels and dimes are now dollars. I think of our generous donors and supporters doing everything they can to help us make the Museum a reality. Soon I hope we can ring few bells in honor of a permanent home for women’s history.