Exum Clement Stafford
by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
I know that years from now there will be many other women in politics,
but you have to start a thing."
you imagine what it was like to not have the right to vote? To be at
the mercy, really, of men in power whom you had not chosenand
could not get rid of? Lillian Exum Clement lived in such a world.
her energy, tenacity, intelligence and dedication led to her being chosen,
by the men of the Democratic party in Buncombe County, as the first
woman candidate for the North Carolina legislaturejust before
women won the right to vote with the 19th amendment in 1920, after only
72 years of agitation and lobbying. She handily won the primary, winning
her seat at the age of 26 (10,368 to 41 votes for the male candidate
who ran as an Independent)the Republican opponent withdrew before
Miss Clement (in the vernacular of her day) was the first woman to be
elected to a state legislature in the South; she was also one of the
first women lawyers (known as L. Exum Clement and even called Brother
Exum by some of her peers) in North Carolinathe first to
have her own practice without male partners, and she was a criminal
lawyer to boot! Like so many women today, she was, in many ways, a superwoman:
unable to attend university, she studied law at night, tutored by two
local attorneys, while she worked days in the sheriffs office
(she began working there at age 14). Still, she passed the bar exam,
in 1916, with one of the highest grades at the time. She also helped
found the local chapter of the Business and Professional Womens
organization and served as chief clerk of the draft exemption board.
and 1920 were tumultuous times for women in politics. The woman suffrage
movement was in full swing and state after state was faced with the
decision whether to ratify the 19th amendment. Apparently the floodgates
were going to open anyway, and the Democrats of Buncombe County chose
to go with the flow rather than oppose it. An editorial in the Asheville
Times on October 7, 1920 had an interesting take on the prevailing attitude:
of course the women are going to vote, whatever their present
[and] the majority of the majority party will be
larger than ever before. In order to win the new, and potentially
very large, female constituency over to the party, the editor advised
the Democrats to point out what conditions prevailed when the
Republicans were last entrusted with the state government. It should
be no dry lecture, but a pleasing and informing talkwomen do not
need to have things hammered into their brainsa hint will accomplish
the only goal the party elite had in proposing L. Exum Clement as their
candidate was to gain the votes of the newly enfranchised women for
their party. But what they, and the state of North Carolina, got was
a woman who, in her own words was
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.
she started many things: her first bill called for private voting booths
and a secret ballot. Even her own party deserted her on this, lamenting
that politicians would lose direct contact with their voters under
this method. An Asheville Times editorial pointed out, with some
irony, that a man could not buy votes if he could not see to their
delivery. Opponents crushed the bill initially, but it passed
later when she reintroduced it as the only democratic way";
today we take it for granted that privacy and secrecy are necessary
for honest and fair elections.
a woman, Lillian Exum Clement had interests and concerns that perhaps
the men of her day were unaware of, or considered unimportant. One of
these concerns resulted in the Pure Milk Bill, calling for tuberculin
testing of dairy cows and sanitary dairy barns. A second, and more controversial,
was the divorce bill she proposed that reduced from 10 years to 5 years
the time a woman had to wait after being abandoned by her husband before
she could sue for divorce. (Imagine a 30-year-old woman of that era
languishing for 10 years before she could divorce and possibly remarry!)
But the most contentious issue Exum Clement proposed concerned her long-held
dream that the Lindley Training School, a home for unwed mothers
and delinquent girls, would become a state-supported institution.
At a rally in Asheville regarding this difficult problem, she was shocked
when rotten eggs and vegetables were thrown at her and some people accused
her of contributing to the delinquency of girls. Yet, in
her calm, determined way, she brushed off her clothes, quoted the Bible
concerning those who cast stones and persisted until she achieved her
In all, she introduced 17 bills in the General Assembly16 of them
became law. And she accomplished all this in only one term; she married
her fiancé Elias Eller Stafford and did not run for election
for a second term. She did not retire from public life, however, continuing
as secretary of the Business and Professional Womens group and
as a director of the State Hospital in Morganton. In 1923 she gave birth,
prematurely, to a daughter, Nancy, the first incubator baby in the state.
Sadly her health deteriorated, and Lillian Exum Clement Stafford died
of pneumonia in 1925.
Her only child, now Stafford Anders, still lives in Asheville. Stafford recently related a story to me that illustrates her mothers
true nature: a woman willing to do much more than talk about her beliefs.
From her office window on Pack Square, Lillian noticed a young woman
sitting on a bench for a couple of days. Concerned, she went down to
ask if she could help and learned that the young woman, employed as
a maid for a local family, had been seduced by the son, became pregnant
and was kicked out by that family and her own. In Staffords words
Mother brought her home; she gave birth to a daughter and after
I was born and Mother was still sick, the young woman became my wet
may have noticed the historical marker at the corner of Charlotte and
College Streets near City-County Plaza. It was little more than a dry,
impersonal piece of history to me beforeafter talking with Stafford,
however, Lillian Exum Clement has come alive for me. She was a pioneer
in her strong, unassuming way; she accomplished a lot in her short life,
leaving an example for other women to follow. Since 1925 there has always
been at least one woman serving in the House or Senate in North Carolinatoday
there are 35, still a small percentage, but one that continues to grow.
In Western North Carolina many dedicated women have followed Lillians
example: Francis Ramsey, Mary Nesbitt, Marie Colton, and Wilma Sherrill
to name a few. This year we have further opportunities to elect strong
women candidates: Patsy Keever and Susan Fisher are each profiled in
this issue, also see the sidebar regarding Lillians List.
is publisher and associate editor of WNC Woman. She lives in Madison
County with her husband, Sam, dog, Fitzy and cat, Pesto (so named by
granddaughter Lily). Her interest in the political process led her to
a graduate degree in Political Science from UNC-Chapel Hill.
[ firstname.lastname@example.org ]
LIST is a statewide organization in North Carolina, an independent political
committee dedicated to electing pro-choice Democratic women to the North
Carolina General Assembly. Lillians List is named for Lillian
Exum Clement, the first woman elected to the General Assembly in North
Carolina and the first woman elected to any state legislature in the
In 1998, the List supported its first candidate, Marian McLawhorn to
run against Henry Aldridgeafter he stated in a committee meeting
discussing the need for reproductive choice that women who are
raped cannot get pregnant because the juices dont flow.
Lillians List website answers the question, Who is Lillian?
with the following profiles:
is every young professional whos been told to wait her turn
and every seasoned one whos been told she still has to pay her
is every working mom whos managed to balance a checkbook, whos
managed a clean house, a corporate budget and a 12-year-olds
basketball tournament in one day.
every woman whos ever had to defend her right to be pro-choice.
every woman whos ever had to explain her choice not to have
every woman who has ever demanded a raise because shes been
doing the same work as the man in the next cubicle for the same number
of years, and shes still not getting the same pay.
every woman who has ever wondered why the company wont cover
her contraceptives, but will cover that same guys Viagra.
is every working mom who has ever fought for quality day care or family
leave time. She is every woman who has given up a single day of vacation
to care for a sick child or a sick parent.
every African-American woman who has had to work three times as hard
to be considered as good as her white male colleague.
you. She may be your next governor ... she may be your next vice-president
... she may be your next president. And Lillian doesnt get madshe
Carolina ranked 32nd in 2000 among the states in number of women in
in Lillians List is $50/year plus your pledge that you will, each
election year, give at least $50 to each of two candidates recommended
by Lillians List. Profiles of recommended candidates are mailed
to members of Lillians List. Each member decides whom to support
and writes checks directly to the candidates she or he chooses. Members
send the checks to Lillians List; we forward them to the appropriate
Lillians List of NCPO Box 2473Chapel Hill, NC 27515phone: (919)
967-3438fax: (919) 967-3438email: email@example.com