Asheville Archives: Lillian Exum Clement takes her seat in the House, 1921

OFF TO WORK: In 1920, Lillian Exum Clement became the first woman elected to the North Carolina General Assembly. The Buncombe County native headed to Raleigh in January 1921. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville

In April 1920, Asheville attorney Lillian Exum Clement received a letter from Chief Justice Walter Clark of the North Carolina Supreme Court, who wrote:

“I am gratified to note that your friends are thinking of nominating you for the legislature from your county. I should be glad to see North Carolina take this forward step in recognition of the service women have rendered this state — tho a tardy recognition — and hope that you will not decline to honor.”

Ironically, at the time of Clark’s letter, the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, had yet to obtain the necessary approval by three-fourths of the states. Despite the uncertainty of its future ratification, Clark assured Clement that he found no language in the North Carolina Constitution that barred women from holding office.

In his letter, filled with encouragement and historical perspective, Clark added:

“Napolean’s power was largely based upon his assertion of the republican doctrine ‘An avenue open to merit without distinction of birth.’ It is equally necessary that we should assert the doctrine of ‘An avenue to merit, without distinction to sex.’

“If a woman can make a better legislator, or a better lawyer, or write a better book than a man she should not be barred. At any rate they should be given an opportunity to do the best not only for themselves but for the State.”

On April 15, 1920, shortly after receiving Clark’s letter, Clement accepted the Democratic nomination. Four months later, Tennessee became the 36th and final state needed to ratify the 19th Amendment, granting all women the right to vote. (North Carolina would not formally ratify its state constitution until 1971.)

Clement proved victorious on election night. Oddly, her historical win did not appear to garner much coverage in the local papers. However, The Greensboro Daily News Bureau featured an in-depth profile of Clement after she took her seat in the state House of Representatives. The Jan. 15, 1921, article reported:

“Miss L. Exum Clement, the only woman representative in the general assembly, has slipped so unobtrusively and quietly into the everyday work of the house of representative that she is becoming quite a familiar presence there, and one has ceased to regard it as anything at all out of the ordinary. Inquiring rather timidly at the door of the hall as to whether Miss Clement was at her desk, the reply came back quick as a flash, ‘Oh, I’m sure she is, for she’s always among the first to get here in the morning.’ It was then 9:30 on the day of the inauguration ceremonies. Miss Clement has been assigned to desk 59 just under the picture of George Washington which hangs on the wall to the right of the speaker’s desk.”

Though she only served one term, Clement managed to introduce 17 constructive measures, 13 of which passed. Her life was cut short, when on February 21, 1925, she died in her Asheville home due to complications of influenza and pneumonia. She is buried at Riverside Cemetery.

In a Jan. 11, 1921, letter that Clement wrote to her then-fiance, E. Eller Stafford, the newly elected representative declared: “I don’t want people to expect too much of me. There is little I can do alone. If I blaze the trail for other women to come in, until there is enough to do something, then I feel I have done my duty.”

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents.

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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3 thoughts on “Asheville Archives: Lillian Exum Clement takes her seat in the House, 1921

  1. Phillip C Williams

    I was privileged to know Ms. Clement’s daughter, Stafford Anders, for many years. Stafford and her husband, Winn, were the proprietors of Yesterday’s Child Antiques which was located on Wall St when I first knew it, and moved later to Lexington Avenue.

    They were a wealth of knowledge about Old Asheville, and knew where quite a few of the bodies were buried. They also knew antiques and the business inside and out, and graciously passed on their knowledge to anyone who cared to listen. Great folks and I miss them . Stafford passed some years back, but I understand that Winn, now around 95 years old, is living with his son in Greensboro.

    • Thomas Calder

      Hey Phillip, good to hear from you. Thanks as always for sharing. I hope you’re doing well.

      • Phillip C Williams

        I am doing fine, thanks! Not quite back in WNC but at I am at least in the State of NC now – stationed at Ft Bragg until November.

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