Clement: A Pioneer for Women in Politics - TribPapers

Clement: A Pioneer for Women in Politics

Photo by Clint Parker

Asheville – In downtown Asheville, on College Street near Charlotte Street, you will find this marker: Lillian Exum Clement Stafford – 1886-1925 – First female legislator in the South. Elected to N.C. House in 1920. Her law office was located 400 yards to the west, and her home was half a mile northeast.

In the summer of 1920, just two months before the Nineteenth Amendment granted women the right to vote, Lillian Exum Clement was nominated as a Democratic candidate for the North Carolina State House of Representatives.

Her nomination was historic, and the primary election results were nothing short of astounding. Clement triumphed over her two male opponents by an overwhelming margin, securing 10,368 votes to their combined 41. This resounding victory set the stage for her success in the general election in November, where she emerged victorious once again.

On January 5, 1921, Clement took her seat in Raleigh, becoming the first woman in the South to hold legislative office. Her achievement not only paved the way for other women but also marked a significant milestone in the fight for gender equality in American politics. Hey, but what is gender anymore?

Lillian Exum Clement, born in Black Mountain, North Carolina, and later moved to Biltmore, displayed remarkable drive and determination from a young age. She worked in the Buncombe County sheriff’s office while simultaneously studying law at night. Her hard work paid off when she passed the bar exam in 1916. The following year, she began practicing law, setting up her office in the Law Building. Clement’s legal career was characterized by her dedication to justice and willingness to champion causes that benefited the broader community. This dedication naturally extended to her legislative career.

As a legislator, Clement was known for her progressive stance and her advocacy for the underrepresented. Her colleagues in the legislature referred to her as “Brother Exum,” a testament to her respected status among her peers. During her tenure, she introduced seventeen bills, several of which had a lasting impact on North Carolina’s legal and social landscape.

Notable among these was the measure for the secret ballot, a significant step towards ensuring voter privacy and integrity in elections. Clement also introduced the “pure milk bill,” which mandated tuberculin testing of herds to ensure public health and safety. Additionally, she championed a reduction in the abandonment period required for divorce from ten to five years.

One of Clement’s most controversial yet crucial pieces of legislation was her bill advocating for state control of a home for unwed mothers. Despite facing significant opposition and even public hostility—she was pelted with eggs and vegetables while speaking in Asheville—she stood firm in her commitment to social welfare and support for vulnerable populations. Her resilience in the face of such adversity underscored her dedication to her principles and her constituents.

In the summer of 1921, Clement married newspaperman E. Eller Stafford, a union that necessitated a special legislative session to officially change her name. Despite her marriage and the social expectations of the time, she did not seek reelection, choosing instead to focus on her personal life. Clement’s career, though brief, was marked by significant accomplishments and paved the way for future generations of women in politics.

Clement’s pioneering spirit and contributions to public service are commemorated through Lillian’s List, an organization established in 1997 to promote and support Democratic women running for public office in North Carolina. This organization honors Clement’s legacy by continuing her work to ensure that women’s voices are heard in the political arena.

Tragically, Lillian Exum Clement’s life was cut short when she died of pneumonia at the age of thirty-nine. She was laid to rest in the historic Riverside Cemetery in Asheville, leaving behind a legacy of courage, determination, and groundbreaking achievements. Research by the reference staff at Pack Memorial Library has corrected her birth date to March 12, 1886.