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Establishing Justice — The Story of Katharine Wentworth Ruschenberger

“I’m kind of the family historian . . . I’ve always been interested in it.”

Alexandra “Sandi” Tatnall recalls her first memory of her Great-aunt, Katharine Wentworth Ruschenberger.

“She came in her Rolls-Royce and all the neighborhood children came out to see the Rolls-Royce, but I had to stay inside. I was too young to go out. So, I stood by Aunt Katharine’s side, and she told me wonderful stories about her life — a treasured memory.”

Ruschenberger, born in Strafford, PA, in 1853, played an incredible role in the Women’s Suffrage Movement through the creation of the Justice Bell. The Justice Bell, formerly known as the Suffrage Bell, travelled through all counties in Pennsylvania alongside Ruschenberger and other influential women. It is now located in the Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge National Park, Pennsylvania.


Today, Tatnall continues her Great-aunt’s legacy by sharing her story and preserving the importance of what the Justice Bell represents.

“I’m very moved by it and always have been,” she adds.

Watch America250PA’s interview with Tatnall to learn more about the Justice Bell and Ruschenberger’s inspiring journey to establishing justice in the United States.



Can you walk us through your story? What would you like people to know about you?


“Well there really isn’t anything we need to know about me except that I’m fortunate enough to be Great-aunt Katharine’s descendant, and there are many of us. I just happen to be the one to have most of the information. I’m kind of the family historian. . . I’ve just always been interested in it. I believe I met her when I was maybe three years old. I can’t be sure that it was Great-aunt Katharine, but I’m pretty sure it was. I was too young to go outside with my brothers and sisters to see her arrive. She came in her Rolls-Royce and all the neighborhood children came out to see the Rolls-Royce, but I had to stay inside. I was too young to go out. So, I stood by Aunt Katharine’s side, and she told me wonderful stories about her life — a treasured memory. Then, I was fortunate enough to be the recipient of many of her memorabilia, so that’s how I happen to be here. Important story, of course, is Katharine Wentworth Ruschenberger and who she was, and her extraordinary contribution to the Suffrage Movement and to our country, and I’d love to share that with you.”

What is your Great-aunt Katharine’s story, and what drove her to be so involved in the Women’s Suffrage Movement?

“She was born in 1853, and she lived with her parents in Strafford, Pennsylvania. She actually watched Lincoln’s memorial train passing through. The family was very involved in that kind of thing. She was always involved even before her marriage. She married rather late in life. She was 35 when she married to Charles Ruschenberger, and he died in 1908. It was after that that she became extremely active in the Women’s Suffrage Movement.
“The Liberty Bell was a touchstone for everyone across the country, and it was not the first time that a replica had been made, but in 1915, before a referendum in the State of Pennsylvania to pass the vote, she came on the good idea to have an exact replica of the Liberty Bell forged up in Troy, New York, at her own expense. She had the words ‘Establish Justice’ engraved, and so it became known as the Justice Bell — the ‘Suffrage Bell’ originally and then the ‘Justice Bell.’ She toured with the Justice Bell for 130 days through every county in the state of Pennsylvania.
Photo courtesy of Alexandra Tatnall
“With the bell, it attracted wonderful crowds: 1,500 people in one small town, 5,000–7,000 people in Philadelphia, and at the final meeting, there were 10,000 people in Philadelphia to see the Justice Bell and hear the speakers. With her travelled staff and also a mill worker. Her name was Rose Winslow — she was a former mill worker and a labor organizer. Also, Mary Church Terrell, who was the head of the National Association of Colored Women; and Alice Moore [Dunbar-Nelson] who was part of the Harlem Renaissance. They all spoke and travelled together and ended up in Stafford, Pennsylvania, where it began.
“The referendum, as you know, failed to pass in 1915, [but] she was undaunted and took the bell to Washington D.C., where she presented each Senator with a framed photo of the Justice Bell and tried to persuade them to pass an amendment to our Constitution which, as you know, was finally passed.

“On August 26 in 1920, there was a great celebration about the passage of the 19th Amendment at Independence Square in Philadelphia, and I would like to read a part of her will — on the very first page of her will — what she had to say about that meeting."

Katharine Wentworth Ruschenberger’s Will Excerpt:

(Note: the following excerpt has been transcribed from an audio reading. The writing, including punctuation, may slightly vary from the original document.)


"The Justice Bell, but formerly known as the Suffrage Bell, the ringing of which at Independence Square in Philadelphia on September 2nd, 1920, was declared by Governor Sproul of Pennsylvania at a meeting presided over by the honorable J. Hampton Moore, Mayor of the city," Tatnall begins.
“'To be in celebration of one of the greatest events in the history of the world, the adoption of the 19th Amendment is the fourth outstanding event in the history of the United States — the others being the Declaration of Independence, the adoption of the Federal Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation. And whereas it is my desire to make such disposition of this bell, as well [as] continuously follow the purpose for which it was cast, namely to become the symbol of the aim and ideal of the Constitution of the United States of America to establish justice. It being my intent and purpose that [the bell] shall at all times be in a place where it can be viewed by the public at large, my preference being that the bell remain permanently at Valley Forge.' — Katharine Wentworth Ruschenberger"

Tatnall shares one final quote from her great-aunt:

“'That our bell may ring and the world may know that, to liberty, America has added Justice' — Katharine Wentworth Ruschenberger"
 

Tatnall also shares her first experience visiting the Justice Bell.

“I saw a picture [at Valley Forge] of Great-aunt Katharine, and she looked so alone as though she didn’t have family—as though she was there with the bell alone—and I was very moved by that. I wanted that story to be told.”

As America250PA prepares to celebrate the nation’s 250th anniversary in 2026, how can we be sure to preserve this history and celebrate the accomplishments of your great-aunt and all of the women who worked together in that time period?

"Well it should be easy. It should be simple because it’s such a wonderful story and it involves so many people. It’s so inclusive, and it’s so necessary. It’s still so relevant and my guess is that, 100 years from now, justice will still be a necessary part of our lives—and we need to fight for it every day."

 

If you are interested in learning more about the Justice Bell and Ruschenberger’s story, visit www.wmchapel.org or contact Washington Memorial Heritage. You can also learn more in Laurie A. Rofini’s article “‘Rung it Never can be Until All Women are Free:’ Katherine Wentworth Ruschenberger and the Justice Bell,” provided by The Pennsylvania Historical Association.


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