Standing Alone

Back in 1915, Chester was the only county in the state to say “yes” to women’s suffrage.

Suffragist leader Katherine Ruschenberger on tour with the Justice Bell in 1915.Borders are only imaginary lines on the ground, but they can mark some very real differences. Locally, county borders once indicated positions on women’s suffrage. In 1915—five years before passage of the 19th Amendment, giving all U.S. women the right to vote—Chester County was the only county in Southeastern Pennsylvania to approve suffrage in a statewide referendum. Of 13,464 votes cast, 55 percent of the county’s voters (all men, of course) voted “yes.”

In neighboring areas, it wasn’t even close. In Delaware County, the pro-suffrage vote was 46 percent. And it went down from there: 40 percent in Montgomery County, 38 in Philadelphia, 33 in Lancaster and 32 in Bucks. The referendum passed in northern and western counties, but it failed statewide.

Trying to put a good face on it, suffragist leader Katherine Ruschenberger of Strafford naturally pointed out Chester County. “The Woman Suffrage Party of Chester County desires to thank the men of Chester County for the uniform kindness shown women at the polls, and for placing themselves on record by such a large majority as in favor of justice and fair play,” wrote Ruschenberger, the party’s secretary for propaganda, two weeks after the election. “The first suffrage meeting was held in Chester County in 1852. The share taken by her men and women in aiding the slave to achieve freedom and justice is well known. It is fitting, therefore, that in this second struggle for justice, Chester County should again lead the eastern counties.”

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Tradition, politics and demographics made Chester County different. It had a long history of educated and politically active women, along with strong support for temperance, a movement closely allied with suffrage. In addition, the county was WASPier than most of its neighbors. WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants) were behind most 19th-century social reform movements.

The trend favoring women’s suffrage began in Chester County’s earliest days. The county was settled by Quakers, who had unique ideas about women. The Delaware River communities—including Philadelphia—were always diverse. But inland Chester County was unsettled territory—and Quakers put their stamp on it.

“The Quaker element largely predominated in this part of the country,” wrote Chester County poet and travel writer Bayard Taylor. “And even the many families who were not actually members of the sect were strongly colored with its peculiar characteristics.”

Writing of early 19th-century West Chester, historian Douglas Harper put it this way: “What [Quakers] shunned found little light or air in West Chester. Their dominance was symbolized by the failure of other churches to take root.”

Quakers believed anyone could know God if divinely inspired. That included females who, as a consequence, had been active socially and in the church since the 1650s. Quaker women traveled in the ministry and, within the church, sometimes had authority over men. All this virtually mandated that they be educated, and made the county receptive to later innovations like the lyceum movement.

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Named for Aristotle’s school in Athens, lyceums began in New England in 1826 and spread nationwide. They were created to satisfy a hunger for knowledge in a population still rural and isolated, but still highly literate. In a time in which most Americans had little access to culture, the idea that traveling musicians or speakers might appear at the local schoolhouse was extremely attractive.

By 1834, there were more than 3,000 lyceums across the United States. In Tredyffrin Township, the Old Eagle School was Chester County’s first lyceum. Others popped up in Dilworthtown, Lionville, Sugartown, Berwyn and Spring City. Most townships had at least one. New Garden Township had three.

Lectures were open to both men and women, and female speakers were not unknown. In 1841, Sarah Fales, a West Chester school teacher, gave a six-lecture course in astronomy. Ann Preston of West Grove—one of the nation’s first female physicians—credited her local lyceum with creating the taste for literature that eventually led her to seek higher education. In 1857, Preston herself offered a six-lecture course, “The Laws of Life and the Means of Preserving Health.”

Science, literature and morality were the main topics. Politics came later—though perhaps not much later in West Chester, where early on, the lyceum offered a debate on immigration: “Should the term of residence required by the naturalization laws be extended?”

“Among the middle class—especially among young adults—these organizations were a springboard for discussing philosophical, religious and social issues,” wrote William R. Meltzer and Laurie A. Rofini, authors of The Woman Suffrage Campaign in West Chester. “The men who attended were of the same demographic most likely to vote for it: white, middle class, native-born and Protestant. Discussions usually favored women’s suffrage.”

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Formal education was not neglected. Established in 1829, the West Chester Boarding School for Girls offered a high-school-level education in the full spectrum of academic subjects—plus needlework—for $70 per term. Harper estimated that 1,200 young women passed through the school during its 22-year history. Affluent families also had a choice of other, smaller private schools. Public schools opened in 1834 for both boys and girls.

West Chester’s location may have attracted organizers of an 1852 convention. A solid base of support existed in both the county and Philadelphia. But abolitionist meetings in Philadelphia had been attacked by mobs. Chester County was safer.

Conducted over two days at Horticultural Hall on North High Street, the event was a clone of Seneca Falls. Resolutions called for equal treatment of women under the law, the rights of women to vote and hold office, access to public education and equal pay for equal work. It was all thoroughly ridiculed. The editor of The Jeffersonian newspaper jeered the men in attendance as “old women in pantaloons,” and the women as old maids, amazons and infidels.

The impact: minimal. At most, wrote Harper, the convention “did its part to keep the feeble flame of women’s rights alive through the 1850s, until it could grow stronger in later decades.”

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After the Civil War, the top issue for politically aware women was not suffrage but temperance. As they saw it, the ubiquity of liquor encouraged men to drink away their earnings and abuse or abandon their families. Therefore, liquor was a threat to the family. They had a point: Between 1790 and 1830, adult Americans drank an average of 17 gallons of hard liquor per year.

Because women couldn’t vote, they were powerless to curtail the liquor traffic legally. So, naturally, supporters of temperance became supporters of suffrage. And the liquor industry was suffrage’s consistent enemy. “The causes of temperance and woman suffrage were linked so closely in the minds of the public that the relationship caused problems for both movements,” wrote Meltzer and Rofini. “Those who were hesitant about or disagreed with prohibitionism were often less likely to support woman suffrage.”

In Chester County, the first push to curb consumption came from the evangelical churches—particularly the Methodists. But the movement was colored by anti-immigrant bias. Methodists generally opposed all use of alcohol. And they noticed that the county’s Irish Catholics not only drank, but did so on Sundays.

Many immigrants never forgot the nativist origins of temperance activists. The WASP busybodies’ campaign against alcohol was one of several causes many immigrants did not welcome. Few cared to be equal with blacks, or to change their cultural habits and traditions. Suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt made no bones about it. “Until the closing years of the struggle,” she wrote in 1923, “its leaders and members were women of American birth, education and ideals. A remarkable number were daughters of Revolutionary [War ancestors].”

In Chester County, fewer residents were foreign born—12 percent in 1910—than in neighboring counties. In Bucks County, it was 11 percent, but—like Lancaster and northern Montgomery—it was home to long-settled Germanic farmers who, like recent immigrants, disliked threats to their cultural traditions. “Among the Plain People,” said one historian, “there was only one sphere for women: ‘Kinder, Kich un Karich’ (children, kitchen and church).”

In 1915, for the first time, suffragists adopted the tactics of a political campaign. Each local group divided its area by precincts and canvassed voters. Across the state, supporters distributed seeds for yellow flowers. (Yellow was the official suffrage color.)

Both sides set up headquarters in West Chester—suffragists on North High Street and the opposition on North Church Street. But the anti-suffrage office was staffed by outsiders from Philadelphia and York. “The anti-suffragists had a relatively low public profile in West Chester and Chester County,” wrote Meltzer and Rofini.

The campaign’s symbol was the Justice Bell, a replica of the Liberty Bell with the words “established justice” added to the inscription. The bell was paid for by Ruschenberger, its clapper chained so it couldn’t ring—to show how women’s voices were silenced. It’s now on the grounds of Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge National Historical Park.

In June 1915, the bell began a three-month, 5,000-mile tour of Pennsylvania by flatbed truck. It was welcomed home to West Chester on Oct. 30 by a parade of Campfire Girls, women on horseback, school children, college students and suffrage leaders in decorated automobiles.

Chester County’s history justified ending the tour within its borders, said Ruschenberger in a concluding rally on the courthouse steps. “The bell,” she said, “comes back to its own home.”

Mark E. Dixon welcomes comments. Write a letter.

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