This partnership between the PAFA and the Justice Bell Foundation, invites the public to experience the story of the Justice Bell, an often overlooked and under-explored tale unique to Pennsylvania about the fight to provide American women with the right to vote.
PAFA alumni were recently commissioned to recreate the Justice Bell, which will have its inaugural display in the rotunda of the Historic Landmark Building at PAFA, before embarking on a statewide tour. This is the first of several initiatives in the museum at PAFA planned to honor and celebrate the passing of the 19th Amendment one hundred years ago. In 2020, the museum will present a suite of exhibitions and programs that will celebrate women artists and their contributions to American art history.
Cast at Philadelphia's Traction Company by PAFA alumni Erin Addie '18 and Gary Pergolini '18, the project was overseen by sculptor and Scultpure Department chair Robert Roesch. Made of a lightweight resin material—as opposed to bronze—the Justice Bell replica resembles the original bell in scale and palette but is designed for efficient travel across the state.
The History of the Justice Bell
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.
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? Organize 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 $2,000 and soon members of the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association traveled to the Meneely Bell Company in Troy, New York, to oversee the making of the 2000-lb. bronze replica. The words “Establish Justice” were engraved on the bell and its clapper was chained to its side, only to be rung when 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.” A group 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.
Unfortunately, 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 the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that gave all the nation’s women the right to vote, the Justice Bell was finally rung in a huge celebration at Independence Square in Philadelphia.
Following that glorious day, the Justice Bell all but disappeared from the public’s view after the state legislature denied the women’s request that it remain on display in Philadelphia. It was eventually transferred to the grounds of the Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania where it was to be featured in a historic museum that was never built. For almost five decades it sat in the woods surrounded by chicken-wire behind the chapel until it was rediscovered and moved to the bell tower where it remains on permanent display.
This presentation is a collaboration between PAFA and The Justice Bell Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit founded in 2016 with a mission to bring to light the story of the Justice Bell through education programs and a documentary film, scheduled for release in 2020.