Lillian Exum Clement was nominated as a Democratic candidate for North Carolina’s House of Representatives two months before the 19th Amendment, granting the vote to women, was ratified in August 1920. The vote over her two male opponents in the primary was an astounding 10,368 to 41. She won the general election in November and, on January 5, 1921, took her seat in Raleigh, becoming the first woman in the South to hold legislative office.
“I was afraid at first that the men would oppose me because I am a woman,” she told The Raleigh News & Observer on her first day in office, “but I don’t feel that way now. I have always worked with men, and I know them as they are. I have no false illusions or fears of them. You may quote me as saying ‘I am definitely for them.'”
Others soon followed. In Tennessee, in a special election on January 25, 1921, Anna Lee Worley was selected to succeed her husband. In 1922 Kentucky gained female legislators. In North Carolina, the next women to serve were Julia Alexander and Carrie McLean, both of Charlotte, in 1925 and 1927 respectively.
Exum, as she was called, was born in Black Mountain, NC, the sixth of seven high-achieving children of George Washington Clement and Sara Elizabeth Barnett. Exum is a coastal North Carolina town where the teenaged George had gone to work supervising railroad crews before finding his way to Black Mountain. Exum’s family moved to Biltmore after her father procured a job as foreman on the Vanderbilt estate. The Clement girls benefited from the support of one of the leading women of that era, Edith Vanderbilt.
Encouraged by her, Exum enrolled in the newly established Asheville Business School. She came to realize she could compete with the male students intellectually, and at age 14, went to work in the Buncombe County sheriff’s office while studying law at night. In February 1916 she passed the bar exam with top grades, and the next year hung out her shingle in the Law Building. She was the first North Carolina lawyer to practice without a male partner.
As a legislator (addressed by fellow solons as “Brother Exum”) she introduced seventeen bills including the measure for the secret ballot, the “pure milk bill” requiring tuberculin testing of herds, and a reduction in the abandonment period required for divorce from ten to five years.
She sponsored a bill to have the state assume control of a home for unwed mothers, garnering opposition (she was pelted with eggs and vegetables while speaking in its behalf in Asheville). Sixteen of her bills passed. Her bill proposing private voting booths for elections was defeated (some argued that other legislators opposed the bill because it would be impossible to bribe or intimidate voters if you couldn’t see them cast their ballots).
In the summer of 1921 she married newspaperman E. Eller Stafford, necessitating a special bill to change her name in the short session. She did not seek reelection. At age thirty-one she died of pneumonia and was buried in Riverside Cemetery.
“Brother Exum Takes Her Seat,” Asheville Citizen-Times, May 8, 1960, reprinted in Jack
Discovering North Carolina: A Tar Heel Reader , Claiborne and William Price, eds., 1991
Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, V, 419–sketch by Alice
R. Cotten, William S. Powell, ed.
Women State and Territorial Legislators, 1895-1995: A State-by-State
Analysis, with Rosters of 6,000 Women, by Elizabeth M. Cox, 1996
A Popular History of Western North Carolina: Mountains, Heroes, Hootnoggers, by Rob Neufeld, The History Press, 2007