Lillian Exum Clement Stafford (1894-1925)

Written By Kellie Slappey

Lillian Exum Clement became the first woman elected to the North Carolina General Assembly and the first woman to serve in any state legislature in the American South.

The youngest of six children, Lillian Exum Clement was born in the Black Mountains of North Folk, North Carolina to George and Sarah Elizabeth Clement in 1894. 

In Clement’s early teens, her father’s employment necessitated a move to Asheville. There her father helped construct the Biltmore House, and she began attending school at the All Souls Parish and then later at Asheville Business College. An eager Clement furthered her education by studying law, under J.J. Britt and Robert C. Goldstein, while she worked for the Buncombe County sheriff’s office for eight years.

On February 7, 1917, Clement passed the bar exam and became the first woman in North Carolina to open her own law practice. Within four years Clement had earned a reputation as a quick-witted and skilled criminal lawyer. One of the local judges, Thomas Jones, started calling her “Brother Exum”; the nickname stuck with her for the rest of her career.

In 1920, the Buncombe County Democratic Party asked Clement to run for a seat in the North Carolina House of Representatives. Even though the 19th Amendment had not been ratified and women were denied suffrage in most states and at the national level, Clement was elected in the Democratic primary over the other two male candidates. She won the general election by a landslide (10,368 to 41 votes). On January 5, 1921, at the age of twenty-six, Lillian Exum Clement took her seat in the North Carolina House of Representatives and shortly afterward married her fiancé of two years, Eller Stafford, a staff writer and telegraph editor for the Asheville Citizen.

From the outset Clement was an active legislator.  She introduced what became known as the Clement Bill–a measure calling for private voting booths and a secret ballot.  Even though the bill suffered an initial defeat, Clement remained determined.  She reintroduced the bill, and it was adopted.

Clement had political concerns that many male legislators overlooked. She introduced legislation to reduce the number of years a woman had to wait to sue for divorce after being abandoned by her husband. Later she sponsored legislation calling for a tuberculin testing of dairy cows and sanitary dairy barns that became the Pure Milk Bill.

Following the adjournment of the General Assembly, Clement took on her most controversial project: advocating that the Lindley Training School, a home for unwed mothers and delinquent girls, become a state institution. Her plan stoked a hostile reception.  Clement even dodged rotten eggs and vegetables as they were hurled at her in one rally.  An unflappable Clement remained steadfast in her convictions, however, and continued arguing for the project until it became a reality.

During her time as a representative, Clement introduced seventeen bills, many of which were passed and became law. Clement decided not to run for re-election and was appointed by Governor Morrison to be the director of the State Hospital at Morganton.

In 1923, Clement gave birth prematurely to a daughter, Nancy. Clement’s health quickly deteriorated, and in 1925, she died of pneumonia. Both the North Carolina House and Senate passed resolutions of regret after her death.  Clement is buried at Riverside Cemetery in Asheville.

Lillian Exum Clement Stafford paved the way for women in North Carolina to serve in public office, and her legacy lives on.  Since 1925, there has always been at least one woman serving in the state House or Senate. In 2023, there were 33 women serving in the North Carolina General Assembly (a decline from 44 in 2010).  Named after the first female state legislator in The Old North State, Lillian’s List was created in 1998, to help women win elections to the North Carolina General Assembly.