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York County welcomes the Justice Bell

The Justice Bell is now at Valley Forge

We are coming up on the 100th anniversary of national woman suffrage in 2020. Before the passage and ratification of the 19th amendment of the United States Constitution, which granted all American women the right to vote, women could vote in relatively few states. While working toward a national constitutional amendment, women and many men were also working at the state level to amend constitutions of the individual states to allow women to vote.

Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts voters would each have a question on their fall 1915 ballots whether their state constitution should be amended to give woman the vote in their state. The Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association and county committees were very organized, hosting local, state and national speakers; attending fairs; organizing entertainment; and spreading the word of the injustice of denying half of its citizens having a say in how they were governed. Anna Dill Gamble, an extraordinary organizer, was called upon to head the York County Committee. I will be sharing more on the varied 1914 and 1915 activities in York County in the future. In the meantime, my recent York Sunday News column below tells the story of the Justice Bell, its role in the woman suffrage campaign and the bell’s tour 2015 of York County.

The Justice Bell comes to York County

The fight for Woman Suffrage ramped up in 1914. Women all over Pennsylvania, including York County, were mobilizing in anticipation of the November 2, 1915 election. The number one question on that ballot would be whether the Pennsylvania Constitution should be amended to give Pennsylvania women the right to vote, a right already fully enjoyed by women in 11 states, mostly in the western part of the country. Voters in New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts had similar resolutions on their ballots in the fall of 1915.

Since only men would be voting, women had to find ways to make the case to persuade the men who were against the amendment or were undecided. Pennsylvania women quickly organized. Under the auspices of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association (PWSA), a chairman was sought for each county. York County chose well in the formidable Anna Dill Gamble. Contemporary newspaper articles, as well as her correspondence at the York County History Center Library/Archives attest to Gamble’s superior organizational skills.

Her papers tell of the impressive efforts of local women in the towns and rural areas of York County as well as the city. I will be writing more about them in the future, but now I am concentrating on the visit of the Justice Bell to the county a few weeks before the November 2015 election.

Katharine Wentworth Ruschenberger of Chester County is credited with the idea, and with funding, the creation of a 2,000 pound replica of the Liberty Bell that could be transported to every county in Pennsylvania as a symbol of the suffrage movement. The only difference, besides no crack, was the addition of the words “establish justice” to the top line of the inscription. The clapper was chained to the side of the bell, with the vow that it would not be rung until women won the vote. The Justice Bell was picked up with ceremony at the Meneely Foundry in New York, by the truck that would carry it over 5,000 miles in the next four months to be viewed by hundreds of thousands of people.

Gamble’s York County Woman Suffrage Party (YCWSP) managed to get the bell for five days in October 2015, so that it could not only tour many county towns but also be on hand for the biggest day of York County’s prime attraction, the York Fair. The bell was accompanied by several speakers from the state organization, with local people also taking part. The YCWSP took care of securing a venue for each stop, putting together programs and arranging for food and lodging for the speakers accompanying the bell.

Local newspapers gave the Justice Bell plenty of press, detailing the packed schedule and reporting on its reception. The bell truck arrived at Hanover on Tuesday, October 5. On Wednesday it travelled to New Oxford, Abbottstown, Spring Grove and on to York. After spending all day Thursday at the York Fair, it journeyed to Loganville, Shrewsbury, Stewartstown, Winterstown, Red Lion and Dallastown on Friday, returning to York for the night. Saturday morning the bell party left the Royal engine house, stopping at Hallam and Wrightsville before crossing the river to Columbia, and then on to Lancaster. Each stop was tightly scheduled, with most from 15 minutes to an hour, more if lunch or dinner was involved.

About 5,000 people greeted the bell in York on the sixth. A parade was staged from the Central School building on West King Street to the courthouse with the York City band, cars with suffragists and speakers, two young men carrying large flags and 18 girls “drawing” the truck with yellow streamers (the symbolic color of the suffrage movement). Local men who spoke in favor of suffrage were Robert C. Bair, Jesse Gitt, A.A. Holden and Charles Hawkins.

Thursday, traditionally the fair’s best day with a usual attendance of 75,000, was cold and rainy, but still drew 60,000. The Justice Bell was reportedly a big draw, once the truck got unstuck from mud at the entrance. The bell was warmly received all over the county. At Shrewsbury, Mrs. Mary H. Eberhart, who was in her eighties, was ill and could not read the poem herself she had composed for the occasion, so the bell truck detoured by her home so that she could see it from her bedroom window.

In spite of the efforts of Pennsylvania women, as well as many men, including those who belonged to the Pennsylvania Men’s League for Woman Suffrage, approval of amending the Pennsylvania Constitution was defeated November 2. Other concerns, such as those leading to the United States entry into World War I a year and a half later, came to the forefront, but women didn’t give up their quest for equal suffrage. Focus shifted from individual states to an amendment to the United States Constitution. Congress passed the 19th Amendment for Woman Suffrage in June 1919. It required approval of 36 states, reached by Tennessee’s ratification in August 1920. (Pennsylvania had quickly ratified on June 24, 1919, only 20 days after Congress passed the amendment.) Finally, on November 2, 1920, women all over the nation could vote. The Justice Bell had continued as a powerful symbol until it was finally rung for the first time in a great celebratory ceremony at Independence Square in Philadelphia on September 25, 1920.

The Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association and Mrs. Ruschenberger had a disagreement in 1915 about her turning the bell over to the PWSA, as outlined in a confidential letter from the state association to Anna Dill Gamble prior to the York visit. So after the 1920 celebration the bell resided in the Ruschenberger yard until it was given to the Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge in 1943. “There it sat, in a chicken-wire cage in the woods, for almost five decades.” It was finally brought inside and installed in the carillon rotunda at the chapel, with fundraising help of the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters, by Rev. Richard Lyon Stinson after he became the new rector in 1991. It can be seen there today.

The story does not end there. According to the Justice Bell Foundation website (www.justicebell.org), plans are presently afoot to fund and produce a documentary telling the story of the Justice Bell in time for the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment in 2020.