First Female Legislator in the South

“I am by nature, very conservative, but I am firm in my convictions. I want to blaze a trail for other women. I know that years from now there will be many other women in politics, but you have to start a thing.”

– Lillian Exum Clement, News and Observer, January 7, 1921

Months before the 19th Amendment was ratified on August 26, 1920, Lillian Exum Clement, a young lawyer from Black Mountain, was chosen by the men in Buncombe County’s Democratic party as the first female candidate for the NC legislature.

Lillian, or Exum as she was often known, would go on to crush her male Independent party opponent in the November 1920 general election by an astounding 10,368 votes to 41.

“Small in stature, modest and retiring in manner, unassuming but keenly alert to situations requiring clearness of thought, she is all that the most exacting would demand…. She wears a Norfolk jacket of green tweed with a small velvet hat, and in her modest attire is as little conspicuous as any other member of the house.” –Greensboro Daily
, January 15,

Left: Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History.

Above: Exum in front of the State Capitol building in Raleigh. Courtesy Pack Memorial Library.

Exum introduced 17 bills during her tenure, 16 of which became law. These included a bill that allowed women abandoned by their husbands to get a divorce after five years rather than ten, another that called for private voting booths and secret ballots, and still another that required that dairy cattle be tested for tuberculin. Exum sometimes faced opposition. Once, her nose was broken by an irate man. On another occasion a crowd pelted her with eggs and rotten vegetables. But Exum was generally beloved.

After serving a little over two months in office, she married Elias Eller Stafford. She did not run for a second term, but continued to be active as a lawyer and an advocate for women. Two years later, in May 1923, she gave birth to a premature baby girl, Nancy, Asheville’s first incubator baby.

Left: Lillian Exum Clement. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History.

Above: Photo courtesy of the Pack Memorial Library.

For the next year and a half, while suffering from long bouts of illness, Exum kept a diary that chronicled her love for her child and each milestone the young girl achieved. She would often bundle Nancy up to make the journey from Asheville to Black Mountain so they could spend the day with her family or get a bite to eat at McGraw’s Coffee House.

The final entry in Exum’s diary reads, “Last night you slept with someone besides Daddy and Mother for the first time. Daddy was sick and Mother was sick and Aunt Nancy came in and spent the night with you.” Twelve days later, Exum passed away from complications of pneumonia.

Clement is buried in Riverside Cemetery in Asheville. In 2014, it was announced that Wingate Anders, the widower of Lillian’s daughter Nancy, had donated the former home of Clement at 34 Hollywood Street in Asheville as part of an easement to the  Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County.

Left: Lillian’s daughter Nancy and Wingate Anders at the unveiling of Clement’s state historical marker in Asheville.

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