Surviving family members of Sadie Bissey Watson have realized that they never really knew her. They've only ever known her as the church-loving, no-nonsense hard worker who wasn't one for projections of affection.
At least, that's what Judy Green remembered about her grandmother. Green and her sister lived with their grandmother for a few years growing up. Even with those years and the well-cooked meals and church services that accompanied them, Green didn't remember anything special about her grandmother. Nothing that would make Sadie Bissey Watson more than a name to attach to the face of her maternal grandmother.
Then Watson died at her nursing home in Norfolk in 1983. She was 85. When looking through her grandmother's memories, Green discovered her grandmother truly lived a separate life than the one she originally imagined for her grandmother.
There's not much mention of Sadie Luella Bissey's youth in the history books other than her birth on Nov. 11, 1898. Her children and grandchildren knew at least that about her. They knew she grew up in Beaver Crossing but didn't know how fiery and determined Bissey was as a teenager.
Bissey stepped to the podium to deliver her high school commencement address as a 16-year-old in 1915. It was five years before ratification of Women's Suffrage, an amendment allowing women's right to vote. And there, a determined teenager with eloquent passion unknown to her eventual generations, delivered a 22-page handwritten speech pleading for equality.
In that document, Bissey mentioned Mary Lyon, Anne Hutchinson, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony among important leaders in the movement for women's rights. Those women exhibiting strength on a national scale showed this teenager in Beaver Crossing that she deserved the same as her male classmates.
“Women are citizens in a government of the people, by the people and for the people,” Bissey said over a century ago, “and Nebraska women are people, therefore they should vote equally with men.”
After 1,827 words, and comparing the strength of a mother to the strength of any member of society, Bissey finally pulled her plea into a conclusion. She spoke directly to her male classmates and male community members, whose votes were needed for the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
“It is in your hands, men of our future Nebraska, to give her this right,” Bissey said. “You entrust your dearest interests to woman, you confide to her keeping.
“Now, after all the reasons I have given why women want to vote and why they should, we, as the women, ask all those who have the privilege of voting to vote for the 306th Amendment which will give the women of Nebraska the franchise.”
Bissey walked away from the the podium and into local celebrity for the time. According to family lore, the dean of Doane College made a personal trip to the family farm to convince Bissey's family to allow her to attend Doane on a full-ride scholarship.
“Women don't need to go to college,” her father replied.
At 18, Bissey became a full-time teacher and at 21, a wife. With husband Orlen Floy, she had five children. Bissey was bedridden for a time with rheumatoid arthritis following the birth of her youngest daughter. Floy, unable to find suitable work, wanted to move the family to Topeka, Kansas, where he found a trucking job. Bissey refused. Floy moved and the kids stayed with Bissey.
They traveled to see each other for a few years, but Bissey never agreed to move to Kansas. They eventually divorced and Floy remarried. Bissey never did.
The outspoken teenager from Beaver Crossing raised her children on her own. Those five children eventually gave Bissey 23 grandchildren. One of the children, Jean Marie Hoke, eventually discovered her mother's high school commencement speech along with journals and other writings in a box that her mother handed down years earlier.
“Don't ever let anybody get rid of these,” Hoke recited her mother's words to a reporter in 1995.
Bissey became a cook at Mary's Cafe and the sale barn in Norfolk before her death. That was the last living memory she gave her extended family. That and the trail of papers, journals and advocacy writings that have painted her in a different light than her grandchildren knew.
Carolyn Ruth Randle, who lives in Madison, is Bissey's last surviving child. Randle's daughter, Judy Green, shared these memories and old photographs. This came as a way for future generations to learn about the woman Green never knew her grandmother to be.
Congress passed the 19th Amendment in 1919 and ratified women's right to vote on Aug. 18, 1920. As the 100-year anniversary of that momentous legislation neared, the words Bissey spoke to her classmates remained there on paper from a century past.
“We have shown you, therefore, that partial suffrage, that of men alone, is a denial of democracy,” Bissey wrote. “There is no true liberty in this democracy while women are free only to be governed and not to govern.”