By Lauren Stepp
November is for politics. It is a month of peaking leaves, longer shadows and democracy. It is when we brave winter’s encroaching chill to visit the polls and celebrate our ideological differences. But there once existed a less free America, and Lillian Exum Clement knew it well. Born in 1884 and raised on the North Fork of the Swannanoa River outside Black Mountain, Clement would become the first female legislator in the South, announcing her candidacy for the North Carolina House of Representatives months before Congress would ratify the 19th Amendment. Her story is one of women’s advocacy and one that forever changed the political makeup of North Carolina at large.
“She’s remembered as the first female legislator in the South, but what is really intriguing is that she was nominated to run for the position before women were even allowed to vote, and she won by a landslide,” says Anne Chesky Smith, director of the Swannanoa Valley Museum and History Center. In 2013, the museum featured Clement in its exhibit, Heart of the Valley: The People Who Made Us Who We Are.
The exhibit included a green suit from Biltmore Industries that belonged to Clement. According to Chesky Smith, the Clement family knew the Vanderbilts well. In 1907, Clement’s father was hired to help build Biltmore Village and, some years later, it was George Vanderbilt’s wife, Edith, who nurtured Clement’s desire to become a lawyer. Unable to attend law school as a woman, she studied at night with private tutors, and, in 1917, passed the bar exam with one of the highest scores among 70 students.
“Almost a year later, Lillian hung a shingle embossed with her name outside her new law offices in Asheville, thus becoming the first woman in North Carolina to practice law unsupported by male colleagues,” Chesky Smith writes in a museum blog post.
She later edged into politics and was known as “Brother Clement” by male counterparts in the Democratic party of Buncombe County. After annihilating her independent party opponent in the November election—10,368 votes to 41—the Greensboro Daily News described her as “small in stature, modest and retiring in manner, unassuming but keenly alert to situations requiring clearness of thought, she is all that the most exacting would demand.”
And that she was. Yet her ideas were taken seriously, with 16 of the 17 bills she proposed becoming law. One reduced the amount of time women had to wait to get a divorce if abandoned by their husbands and another called for public funding of an Asheville home for unwed mothers. But representing the interests of women was not always popular.
“On one occasion, she was pelted with eggs,” says Chesky Smith. “But she did not back down.”
Two years after leaving politics to care for Nancie, her only child, Clement died. Her eulogy described her legacy thusly: “A daughter of the present age, she held to the best of the old days while adopting the best of the new.”
For more information on the Swannanoa Valley Museum and History Center, visit History.SwannanoaValleyMuseum.org.