The “Other Liberty Bell” Comes to Reading
The Historical Review of Berks County celebrates Berks Suffrage Centennial
By Ruth Shaffer and Betty Burdan
The Editor of the Review was fortunate to receive two accounts by two fine historians and writers, detailing the history of the “Other Liberty Bell” and its visits to Reading. Please enjoy the following melding of the two stories as they recall the momentous occasion.
On October 13, 1915, the Liberty Bell received a rousing welcome into Reading.
No, not THAT Liberty Bell; the OTHER one, a.k.a. the Justice Bell, the Suffrage Bell, or the Women’s Liberty Bell.
Before the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed in 1920, the battle for women’s suffrage was carried out state by state. The Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association (PWSA) began a determined push for a statewide referendum in 1912. “Prying the necessary two-session resolution from a lukewarm-to-resistant General Assembly was a tall order…Although Philadelphia had become a hotbed of activity, thanks in large measure to the charismatic leadership of Alice Paul (1885-1977), the rest of the state was apathetic at best.” (Pennsylvania Heritage).
After the legislature finally passed a suffrage referendum in 1915, the PWSA organized a campaign that took them to every county in the state. They decided to pass up indoor meetings and took up a new tactic–an auto tour. They knew they had to reach the men, because they were the ones who would be voting on the referendum.
Katherine Wentworth Ruschenberger (d.1943), a suffrage supporter from Chester County, came up with an additional idea: A full-scale replica of the Liberty Bell for which she would foot the bill. It was identical to the original except for the crack and it carried an additional inscription “Establish Justice.” The clapper was chained to the side to symbolize how women’s voices had been silenced. Plans were made to tour the bell to all 67 counties of the state in advance of the November referendum. The 2,000-pound bell was mounted onto the back of a flatbed truck adapted for the purpose. A “Votes for Women” banner was attached to the truck’s back railing along with a sign that read, “This bell will ring for the first time on the day that women of Pennsylvania are granted the right to vote.” Suffragists escorted the bell to the counties and spent the summer zigzagging across the state. The spectacle of a group of women escorting a full-size Liberty Bell on the back of a flatbed truck was unusual and drew crowds. The receptions for the most part were friendly, warm and enthusiastic.
The Justice Bell party arrived in Berks County from Lancaster on October 13, 1915. They were welcomed by a Reading delegation in Adamstown, and the entourage then proceeded through Shillington to Reading, the truck leading the way, followed by the Reading women in decorated automobiles.
The Reading News-Times reported: “School children, mothers and fathers, stopped their work to greet the bell party with the greatest enthusiasm. Badged with yellow [the color of the suffragists], hands flower filled, they strewed the path of the travel-wearied, but undaunted suffragists with cheer. They sang songs by the wayside, and in response listened most attentively to the splendid address…”
At 7:30 that evening the Reading suffragists gathered at Second and Penn streets to proceed as an escort of
the bell to City Park. The Reading Eagle reported: “With thousands of enthusiastic suffragists and a large number of persons who have not definitely come out on the side of votes for women lining Penn Street last evening, the great woman’s liberty bell, which has toured practically the entire state, rode majestically up and down Penn street…” The next day at 10 a.m. the bell and its party started on the home stretch of its tour of the state, stopping at places in Eastern Berks, such as Friedensburg, Yellow House, Shanesville, Boyertown and Hereford.
After a 5,000 mile journey the bell was welcomed to Philadelphia, its last stop, on October 22, 1915. A parade of 8,000 people down Broad Street was witnessed by 100,000 and followed by a ceremony at the Academy of Music attended by all the dignitaries.
The Unchained Melody of Justice
But alas! The bell’s clapper was not unchained following the November 2 nd referendum. The amendment was defeated by the Pennsylvania (male) voters. All the counties of Southeastern Pennsylvania, with the exception of Chester County, voted against it, some by wide margins.
Five years later, on September 25, 1920, thousands gathered on Independence Square to celebrate the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. Women finally had the right to vote! Katherine Wentworth Ruschenberger spoke of the history and significance of the Justice Bell. A woman dressed as “Justice” marched out of Independence Hall and unchained the clapper.
Then, the bell was rung 48 times, once for each state in the union–silent no more.
Following the celebration, Ruschenberger wanted the bell to remain in Philadelphia on Independence Square, but male officials denied that request. So, the bell ended up in her backyard.
In 1943, the year of her death, she deeded it to Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge National Park and it languished there in a chicken-wire cage in the woods for about 50 years. In 1992, the new rector of the chapel, Rev. Richard Lyon Stinson, enlisted the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters and the Daughters of the American Revolution to help raise money to house it. In 1995 it was installed in the carillon rotunda and it is still there today.
…and then to Boyertown…
by Betty Burdan
The Women’s Suffrage movement was debated in Boyertown High School by the student Literary Society in 1913. In the affirmative were Catharine Weiser, Kathleen Funk and Earl Weber. Debating in the negative were Horace Grater, Lester Stauffer and Beulah Tabor. The affirmative side prevailed.
In 1914 the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association sent Margaret Foley to speak at the Boyertown Casket Works. She was also scheduled to speak at the high school, but objections were raised and her appearance was canceled. It seems Boyertown wasn’t ready to consider giving the vote to the fairer sex.
In 1915, Boyertown High School seniors chose Women’s Suffrage as the theme for their Class Day exercises held in the Lyric Theatre. Once more. women’s right to vote was debated by the best and brightest of the class of 14 males and 14 females.
William Muthard gave an extensive history of women’s suffrage. Cora Davidheiser and Dora Comer argued against and Sadie Strunk and Remeda Landis argued for. Those opposed felt women were doing just fine and didn’t need to become involved in politics with all its obligations. Making important decisions was mans’ work. Besides, if women had the vote it would double the cost of every election held. Those in favor argued that women needed a voice in the laws they had to live by. A woman’s life would be improved in so many ways, making her a better worker and homemaker. Suffrage won again.
At about one o’clock on the afternoon of October 14, 1915 the Women’s Liberty Bell came to Boyertown, where Miss Adella Potter, field secretary for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, spoke to a crowd in front of the Union House. Her next stop was Eisenlohr’s Cigar factory, one of the largest employers of women in Boyertown. Workers stopped to peer out the windows and stepped out on the fire escapes to hear Miss Potter speak.
…and Finally, to Valley Forge
SOURCES: Justice Bell Foundation (www.justicebell.org); Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia (philadelphiaencyclopedia.org);
National Park Service (Independence Park and Valley Forge); Miner, Curtis. “Ringing Out for Women’s Suffrage,” Pennsylvania
Heritage, Vol. XLV, No.4, Fall, 2019. Pennsylvania Heritage is copublished by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission and the Pennsylvania Heritage Foundation.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Ruth Shaffer is a valued volunteer and researcher at the Berks History Center, and a frequent contributor to The Historical Review of Berks County. Betty Burdan is an author and historian based in Boyertown.