Lillian Exum Clement (1894-1925)
Lillian Exum Clement was born in 1894 in Black Mountain, an Appalachian town in extreme western North Carolina. She attended high school in nearby Asheville, where she began working in the sheriff's office at age 14 and became determined to be an attorney. After graduating from Asheville Business College, she held various jobs to support herself through law school, and passed the bar in 1916 – earning the highest score among 70 other students.
Clement enjoyed great success as a defense attorney, and when it appeared the federal 19th Amendment would be ratified in time for the 1920 election, local Democratic leaders approached her about running for Buncombe County's seat in the North Carolina Senate. Although only 26 years old, she defeated two male opponents in the primary, and won the general election 10,368 to 41.
"I want to blaze a trail for other women," Clements said. "I know that years from now there will be many other women in politics, but you have to start a thing." Although she only served one term, Senator Clements made an excellent start: she passed sixteen bills, a very large number for a legislative newcomer, and many of them were on important and controversial matters.
Among them were private voting booths to ensure a secret ballot and the reduction from ten years to five for the time that women had to wait for divorce on the grounds of desertion. The one area in which she was unsuccessful was the establishment of a school for unwed mothers. At an Asheville rally to raise support for this, she found herself covered in rotten eggs and vegetables thrown by opponents, who argued that she was encouraging delinquent young women.
Senator Exum married E. Eller Stafford the year following her election, and after giving birth to a daughter in 1923, decided not to seek reelection in 1924. She remained active as a founder of local chapters of the new National Business and Professional Women's Club and as the director of the State Hospital in Morgantown, North Carolina. Sadly, she never fully recovered from the birth of a son and died in 1925. Lillian Exum Clement was just 31 years old.
Image credit: North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, North Carolina.