March is womens’ history month and the DWNC are celebrating it by recognizing some of the ladies who made NC politics great.
Lillian Exum Clement was the first woman elected to the North Carolina General Assembly and the first woman to serve in any state legislature in the South.
Lillian, the youngest of six children, was born in Black Mountain in 1894. In her early years, she studied law under two Asheville attorneys and passed the bar exam in February of 1917. She was the first woman in North Carolina to open her own law practice, and proved an excellent criminal lawyer.
Even though the 19th Amendment had yet to be passed, Lillian ran for a seat in the NC General Assembly, urged on by the Buncombe County Democratic Party. She beat her two male opponents in the democratic primary and won the general election in a landslide (10,000+ votes to 41 votes). In January 1921 Clement took her seat in the North Carolina House of Representatives.
Clement’s signature legislation created secure voting booths and a secret ballot. She introduced legislation to reduce the number of years a woman had to wait to sue for divorce after being “abandoned” by her husband. Clement was also a public advocate for making the Lindley Training School, a home for unwed mothers and delinquent girls, a public institution.
After serving a single term, she was appointed by Governor Morrison to be the director of the State Hospital at Morganton. A trailblazer, Clement paved the way for North Carolina women in the legislature. Since 1925, there has always been at least one women serving in the State House or Senate.