General Jethro Sumner Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, partnered with the Sumner County Health Department to honor a Gallatin citizen, Prudence Dresser (1868-1938), for her contributions toward public health and the Women Suffrage Movement.
An American Heritage Southern Magnolia descended from a tree located at the home of Helen Keller was planted and dedicated at the Sumner County Health Department recently in remembrance of this remarkable woman.
During this time of a pandemic, it is only fitting that a woman who helped establish Sumner County’s public health system be recognized. Her activism as a suffrage leader should also be honored during this year of the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution giving women the right to vote.
Dresser definitely was a woman ahead of her time. She ran her own business, organized the local chapter of the Red Cross, helped to establish the Sumner County Health Department, served as a leader of Sumner County’s women’s activities for both black and white communities during World War I, and was often the only woman to serve on influential boards and committees.
After graduating in 1892 with honors from the New England Conservatory of Music, Dresser taught music both in Gallatin and at the Conservatory in Boston. It is there that she met and married banker Harry Knight Dresser. Unfortunately, Harry Dresser died of tuberculosis only four years after they were married.
After losing both her mother and her six-year-old daughter to tuberculosis four years after losing her husband, Dresser was determined to fight the disease that took her family. She served as district chair of the Health Committee of the Tennessee Federation of Women’s Clubs. In 1910, Dresser was instrumental in forming the Tennessee Anti-Tuberculosis Association. That same year she served as the National Chairman of Tuberculosis for the General Federation of Women’s Clubs.
As a woman achieving much success in a man’s world, she became interested in the fight for equal suffrage for women. She was a founder of the Sumner County Equal Suffrage League. After World War I ended in 1918, women were granted the right to vote in presidential and municipal elections, but not in local elections. Dresser was the first woman to register under the new law and cast a vote. By 1919, she was president of the local suffrage movement and first vice president for Middle Tennessee in the state association. When the final push for ratification of the 19th Amendment came in 1920, she was the co-chair of local activities. In 1921, she served as a delegate to the first state convention of the League of Women Voters.
Dresser continued her work as teacher, musician, local leader, and organizer for the remainder of her life. She continued to perform and teach music to the very end, and among her last students was Johnny Maddox, famed ragtime pianist and Gallatin resident.
When she passed away on March 23, 1938, it was written of her:
“While the spirit of Mrs. Dresser has parted from us, there remains an inspiring memory of one who was possessed of a high sense of honor in all life’s relationships. And there remains a large contribution to our common welfare; the health which some enjoy because of her part in fighting disease, the public welfare institutions she helped to promote, the higher appreciation of music which may have been because they knew her as a musician and the ministry of music still carried on by those who studied under this master. They are all contributions to the good of man and the beauty of life.”
Cindy Rouch is a member of the General Jethro Sumner Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution.