The Justice Bell Rings for Women's Suffrage on Independence Square

Detail, front page of newspaper showing young woman next to a large bell.
The front page of the Evening Public Ledger shows Katharine Wentworth next to the Justice Bell.  Wentworth first rang the Justice Bell on September 25, 1920, in celebration of women's suffrage.

Library of Congress, Evening Public Ledger newspaper image provided by Penn State University Libraries; University Park, PA.
https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045211/1920-09-25/ed-1/seq-1/

The Justice Bell - a symbol of the women's suffrage movement - pealed in jubilation on Independence Square on September 25,1920. This bell, a replica of the Liberty Bell with an inscription to "Establish Justice," had traveled with its clapper chained silent through every county in Pennsylvania in 1915 to rally support for a statewide referendum on women’s voting rights. The Pennsylvania referendum failed, and the Justice Bell remained silent. The adoption of the 19th Amendment on August 26, 1920, extended voting rights to women nationwide. A month later, suffragists and politicians gathered on Independence Square for speeches, pageantry, and the jubilant pealing of the Justice Bell.

At the request of Philadelphia Mayor J. Hampton Moore, the scene on Independence Square on September 25 was one of patriotic red, white, and blue, rather than suffrage yellow and suffrage banners. Mayor Moore, known as a staunch opponent of women's suffrage, found this patriotic theme more suitable to the birthplace of American freedom (Evening Public Ledger, September 25, 1920, page 1). A large crowd attended, even though Mrs. George Piersol of the League of Women Voters noted that many of the 3,000 women did not receive their invitations because of "post office troubles" (Evening Public Ledger, September 25, 1920, page 4).

An hour and a half of speeches and pageantry preceded the unchaining and ringing of the Justice Bell. The festivities began at 2:30 p.m. with community singing and a concert by the police band. In his opening remarks at 3 p.m., Mayor Moore hailed women's suffrage as a new and better day, saying, "The Nation expects better things. Better things because of the advent of women into the realm of American citizenship...Welcome, women of the land...welcome here in the presence of the sanctity of this sacred building..." (The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 26, 1920, page 2). Speaking on behalf of women voters, Mrs. George Piersol referenced the historic event and location, "...we meet at this hallowed shrine of Liberty to celebrate the completion of democracy and the dawn of an era of justice." Mrs. Piersol went on to say that she speaks for women who had dreamed of this day, "For all - whatever be their creed or color." (The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 26, 1920, page 2). However, much like at other mainstream women's suffrage events, women of color did not seem to play a prominent role in the Independence Square celebration on September 25.

Pennsylvania Governor Sproul outlined four historic events in American history: the Declaration of Independence, the acceptance of the U.S. Constitution, the Civil War, and the granting of equal franchise. He concluded his remarks by asking women "...not to lose one bit of the sweetness, tenderness and devotion which have characterized you in the past, but to carry that sweetness, tenderness and devotion into your public works." (The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 26, 1920, page 2).

The newspapers carried very little of the content of the other speeches, including those by Mrs. Maud Wood Park speaking on behalf of the League of Women Voters, and Mrs. John O. Miller, representing the state's suffrage movement. Dr. M. Carey Thomas, president of Bryn Mawr College, paid tribute to the pioneers of the suffrage movement, including Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Dr. Anna Howard Shaw. Two of Susan B. Anthony’s nieces, Miss Lucy E. Anthony and Mrs. Ann Anthony Bacon, were in attendance.

While Katharine Wentworth Ruschenberger of Chester County, PA, spoke of the Justice Bell’s history and significance, forty-eight girls and women representing the 48 states and dressed in white with green and gold badges, processed toward the Justice Bell. Mrs. Thomas Dorsey Pitts, as “Justice,” marched out of Independence Hall and moved forward to unchain the Justice Bell. The Philadelphia Inquirer (September 26, 1920, page 2) described Mrs. Pitts' attire: "...she wore sandals and her striking green robe was relieved by white, while oak leaves formed a coronet which she wore in her head." Her young daughters served as pages, carrying a sword and scales. At 4 p.m., Miss Katharine Wentworth, the teenaged niece of Katharine Wentworth Ruschenberger, then pulled the rope, ringing the Justice Bell. It pealed 48 times, once for each state in the union. At the same time, bells in communities across the nation rang in recognition of women’s suffrage.

Following the national anthem and a benediction, the program concluded. Mrs. George Piersol and the League of Women Voters hosted new voters in a reception in the nearby Curtis Publishing Company building.

With the pealing of the Justice Bell on Independence Square on September 25, 1920, women staked their claim to the words "We the People," demonstrating that they now had a voice in the ongoing American experiment. But for some women, especially those of color, the fight for equal rights was far from over.

Sources

"Suffragists Ready For Jubilee Today," The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 25, 1920, page 3.

"Woman's Justice Bell Will Ring This Afternoon," Evening Public Ledger, September 25, 1920, pages 1 and 4. *Note that this source is available online through the Library of Congress.

"Jubilee at West Chester," Evening Public Ledger, September 25, 1920, page 3.

"Women Celebrate Enfranchisement," Harrisburg Telegraph, September 25, 1920, page 1.

"Justice Bell Rings For First Time As New Voters Cheer," The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 26, 1920, pages 1 and 2.

"Justice Bell Rung By Suffragists To Proclaim Victory," Pittsburgh-Post Gazette, September 26, 1920, page 1. This article specifies that Katharine Wentworth rang the Justice Bell "three times, and it was continued by others until it had rung 48 times, once for each state in the Union."

"Bells Proclaim Suffrage Here," The Gettsyburg Times, September 27, 1920, page 1.
This newspaper relates the experience of women in Gettysburg, PA, who took matters into their own hands when the Court House bell did not ring in celebration as planned at 4 p.m. on September 25. The article explains that "...women hurried to the Court House, found the rope and rang the bell... After several minutes of bell ringing which the women thoroughly enjoyed, the Court House officials appeared on scene and relieved them."

Last updated: August 18, 2020