Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Katharine Wentworth Ruschenberger, 1853-1943
By Laurie A. Rofini, Chester County Archives and Records Services, Chester County Historical Society, West Chester, Penn.
Katharine Wentworth was born in Philadelphia in 1853 to John Langdon Wentworth and the former Martha Emlen. The family soon moved to Tredyffrin Township in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Katharine was the oldest of four children; her sister Martha Wentworth Suffren would become active in Brooklyn, New York, suffrage work. Wentworth married naval officer Charles Wister Ruschenberger in 1888. The couple had no children and resided in Strafford, Chester County, where they participated in social and charity events.
Ruschenberger was a member of the Equal Franchise Society of Philadelphia and a life member of the Woman Suffrage Society of the County of Philadelphia. During the 1915 Pennsylvania suffrage referendum campaign, she was in charge of propaganda for the Woman Suffrage Party of Chester County, the new branch of the NAWSA-affiliated Chester County Equal Suffrage Association.
Ruschenberger is best known for the Justice Bell, an "exact bronze replica" of the Liberty Bell (without the crack). She paid for and oversaw the bell's casting at Troy, New York. Because she thought that women's claim to suffrage was based on justice, she had the phrase "establish justice" added to the bell's motto. The clapper was chained to symbolize women's muted political voice. The bell was the centerpiece of the 1915 campaign. Suffragist speakers took the bell to every county in Pennsylvania, taking part in local suffrage parades and rallies. Ruschenberger accompanied the bell on the tour, although she typically did not give the open-air speeches. The bell's last stop before election day was in West Chester, Chester County. She noted the appropriateness of the locale, as it hosted the first Pennsylvania women's rights convention in 1852. Ultimately the referendum failed statewide. Chester County was the only southeastern county to support it.
Ruschenberger worked with suffragists in both NAWSA and the National Woman's Party. She retained personal ownership of the Justice Bell and lent it for suffrage parades in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and a 1919 procession in Harrisburg following Pennsylvania's ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.
The Justice Bell's chained clapper was freed, and the bell sounded for the first time on September 25, 1920, during a ceremony to mark the national suffrage victory. The event was held at Independence Square in Philadelphia. Ruschenberger's niece Katharine Wentworth, who had released the lever at the bell's casting in 1915, was charged with ringing it for the first time.
Like many suffragists with ties to NAWSA, Ruschenberger was active in the League of Women Voters, lending the Justice Bell for a 1924 get-out-the-vote Pennsylvania caravan. She also was involved in Republican Party politics and supported local women candidates.
Ruschenberger died in 1943. She left the Justice Bell in trust for display at Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. In her will she quoted Governor Sproul at the 1920 Philadelphia victory celebration, in which he identified the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment as the "fourth outstanding event in the history of the United States," the others being the Declaration of Independence, the adoption of the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation.
No personal papers of Ruschenberger have been located. Sources include: estate files, Chester County, PA; Suffrage Collection, Chester County Historical Society; newspaper clippings file, Chester County Historical Society; League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania records (Collection 2095), The Historical Society of Pennsylvania; Philadelphia Inquirer; Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, PA); Altoona Tribune; and Evening News (Harrisburg, PA). See also, Ida Husted Harper, ed., "Pennsylvania," chapter XXXVII in History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 6: 1900-1920 (New York, NY: National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1922), pp. 550-64. [LINK]