[This blog post was written by Fran Tracy-Walls, Private Manuscripts Archivist, Private Collections of the Special Collections Section of the State Archives of North Carolina.]
Lillian Exum Clement Stafford (March 1886 – February 1925)In early 1920, before women could even vote, exceptional courage and drive were essential for a woman to run for the state legislature. Such gumption was characteristic of Lillian Exum Clement, known as Exum, who decided as early as April to enter the race––months before passage of the Nineteenth Amendment on August 26. The Buncombe County Democratic party, in a remarkable show of support, had placed Exum’s name on the ballot for the June primary. She went on to beat two male contenders, winning in the November election to become the first female lawmaker in her own state and in the entire South.
Exum was born near the North Fork of the Swannanoa River, March of 1886, the fourth child of George W. and Sarah Elizabeth Burnett Clement [see note at the end regarding her birth date and birth order.] Fast forward 35 years to the beginning of her legislative service when Exum was quoted as telling a reporter, “I am 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.” [News and Observer. Jan. 7, 1921].“Start a thing,” Exum did, but her election victory in 1920 was not the first time that she had led instead of following the course expected of women. One of her first jobs during the early 1900s was at the Buncombe County sheriff’s office, serving as an office deputy, in itself unusual for that day. During that same period Exum began a collection of postcards of state capitols and county courthouses sent to her by friends travelling in different areas of the South. Several of them are preserved in this collection and indicate her early passion and interest in law and government.
As a woman, Exum was not allowed to attend law school. Yet beginning around 1908, she undertook the arduous journey under difficult conditions of working during the day and reading law at night. She studied first under J. J. Britt, then Robert C. Goldstein of Asheville. The courses taught by Mr. Goldstein may have been similar to those offered at the University of North Carolina, and there were a few men who also read law under a tutor. Yet when Exum stood the state bar exam February 7, 1916, she was one among about 68 men, most of whom were graduates of colleges and universities and had the advantage of concentrated study in law. Exum’s determined study of six years or more contributed to her earning one of the top scores on the bar exam, earning accolades from N.C. Supreme Court justice, Walter Clark, among others.
The following year, on February 2, 1917, Exum hung a shingle bearing her name in the law building near the county courthouse. Continuing to show her penchant to “start a thing,” Exum became the first woman in North Carolina to establish a solo law practice, without affiliation with male lawyers in an established law firm. In her legal career, Exum earned a reputation as a capable criminal defense lawyer. During World War I, she also served as chief clerk of the Buncombe County draft board. These achievements were surely among the various factors in her successful run for the state’s General Assembly.Although Exum would serve only one term in the House of Representatives, she was an especially active legislator. Of the approximate seventeen bills that she introduced, most of them passed. Among these was legislation prohibiting railroads from hiring illiterates for certain positions; a measure providing for the secret ballot; a “pure milk bill” requiring tuberculin testing of dairy herds; and a divorce bill reducing from ten to five years the time that women had to wait for a divorce decree on the grounds of desertion. Her bill for private voting booths to ensure a secret ballot was killed but later became law. During her legislative service, Exum also advocated for the state directing and providing financial support for the Lindly Training School for unwed mothers and delinquent girls. She advanced her position at a rally in Biltmore, calling for a sensible approach to the issues and help for those regarded widely as fallen girls and women. Though expecting some opposition, she did not anticipate being pelted with rotten vegetables and eggs, and having her nose broken. Instead of fleeing, Exum stood her ground and replied: “Tonight I am reminded of a time long ago by a city gate, when the weapons of the people, who had passed judgment on a woman, were not eggs but hard stones. It is not for you nor me to condemn nor to cast the first stone. Rather to render aid to the unfortunate so they may also go their way and sin no more.” According to the Asheville Citizen Times (decades later, May 8, 1960), some left the rally, but many stayed to listen to Exum, and the Lindly Home endured for decades, though under another name.
Exum was firm in her desire for a career in law and for her commitment to the betterment and advancement of women. She was equally determined to marry and have a family, refusing to believe, as did many, that she had to choose between career and family. Exum married E. Eller Stafford in March 1921, after the close of the regular legislative session. In 1923 Exum gave birth to her beloved daughter, Nancy Lillian Stafford.Exum remained active as a founding member of the local chapter of the National Business and Professional Women’s Club and as a director of the State Hospital in Morganton, N.C. During that period, some of Exum’s friends talked of her running for Congress, possibly a plan in the making. Sadly, that ambition and her dream of seeing her daughter grow to adulthood were not to be. On February 21 of 1925, Exum died in Asheville from complications of influenza and pneumonia. Had more advanced medical measures been available at that time to save her life, Exum would surely have continued to “blaze trails” for other women.
Note: Many sources report Exum’s birthdate as 1894 and list her as the fifth or sixth child born to George and Sarah Elizabeth Clement. However, the 1900 U.S. Federal Census shows her month and year of birth as March 1886, and her birth order as that of the fourth child. The 1910 census shows her age as 22, suggesting a birth year of 1888. It is possible that Exum listed her age on her marriage certificate as some eight years younger in order to be closer in age to her husband, born around 1894. Although ahead of her time, Exum was traditional in some ways and possibly feared the scorn of those who disapproved of a woman marrying a man some years her junior. Regardless, her legacy of “starting a thing” endures, primarily leading the way for many more women in politics and public life.
Lillian Exum Clement Stafford Flickr photo album, courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina: