Brother Exum—the First Female Legislator in the South

Brother ExumAll this month we’re bringing you stories from North Carolina women’s history. Check back here each week day for a new tidbit on the women of our state’s past.

Lillian Exum Clement—called Brother Exum by her fellow legislators—was the first woman in the South to hold legislative office, taking her seat in the North Carolina House of Representatives in 1921. Nominated as a Democratic candidate two months before the Nineteenth Amendment granted her and other women the right to vote, she beat two male opponents in the primary by an astounding margin of 10,368 to 41. Clement was born in Black Mountain in 1886, and she worked in the Buncombe County sheriff’s office while studying law at night. In 1916 she passed the bar exam and the next year opened her own practice. An active legislator, she introduced seventeen bills. She sponsored a bill to have the state assume control of a home for unwed mothers, garnering widespread opposition (she was pelted with eggs and vegetables while speaking on the bill’s behalf in Asheville). Clement did not seek reelection, but was appointed director of the State Hospital at Morganton. At age 31, she died of pneumonia and was buried in Riverside Cemetery. In 1997 an organization to promote and support Democratic women running for public office in North Carolina was established. It took the name Lillian’s List, in honor of Clement.

Comments

I'd be curious to know the story behind her extraordinary margin of victory over her two primary opponents. It seems unfathomable that a female in the early 20th century - whether in the South or elsewhere - could outpoll her two male opponents, 10,368 to 41.

A fascinating account indeed. It is such a shame that your fellows in the Highway Department have not gotten the memo. When clicking on link to Riverside Cemetery in the story, there is no mention of her among the illustrious (male) gravesites. Surely her recognition should not be so superficial.

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