On Feb. 7, 1916, Lillian Exum Clement became the first woman in Buncombe County to pass the bar exam (and only the fourth woman to do so in the state). By 1920, the Buncombe County Democratic Party asked Clement to run for a seat in the North Carolina House of Representatives. Her nomination came two months before the Nineteen Amendment passed, granting women the right to vote. On Nov. 2, 1920, Clement beat independent-candidate Charles Lee Sykes in a landslide victory: 10,863 to 41. On Jan. 5, 1921 she took her seat as a member of the House of Representatives in Raleigh.
Below are excerpts from a Jan. 11, 1921 letter Clement wrote her fiancé, E. Eller Stafford, who remained in Asheville, as a telegraph editor for the Asheville Citizen. In it, she depicts some of the challenges that came with being the first female member of the state House of Representatives. Clement also refers to Jeannette Rankin in her letter. Rankin was the first woman member of the U.S. Congress, elected by Montana voters to the House of Representatives in 1916. Rankin ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1918.
Thanks as always to Pack Memorial Library’s Special Collections, North Carolina Room for its assistance.
Clement (who went by her middle name, Exum) writes:
…I would tell you some things but am afraid you might mention them and I don’t want anyone to say, “a woman must talk.” The town is getting ready for a big day tomorrow. I would like it here if I could only get to feeling fine again.
Now Eller dear, please don’t ever mention Congress to me. I thought I had impressed that fully on you. If you want me, you will have to take me as I am. If not, then I will take up some other line of work, and believe me it is going to be something very different from any politics. I am going to do something that will build up my nervous system and not tear it down. I wish you would not encourage Papa, but please help get any such idea out of his head.
Baxter Durham is the only man I have met that doesn’t speak to me. But he doesn’t stand very high here.
Mr. Everett says there is a bachelor over in the Senate he has selected for me. Called us both, “high brows.” Several of the men have invited me to go home with them for weekends … I dreamed of being home last night and it made me homesick. I went for a walk last evening, by myself. There was a beautiful sunset up toward Asheville.
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. If Miss Rankin had gotten out and not had to be defeated, she would have left a better impression on the people. These women here realize fully just how hard it is to get anything done. …
I enjoy your letters so much and hope you will write often.