“Brother Exum” – First NC Woman to Open Her Own Law Practice, First Woman Legislator in South

Tabitha Ann Holton was North Carolina’s first woman lawyer.  Lillian Exum Clement (later, Stafford) was the first woman to open her own law practice. And, she was the first woman legislator in the South.

Lillian Exum Clement

Lillian Exum Clement

After reading law in Asheville while working in the Buncombe County Sheriff’s office, Clement was licensed in 1917 at age 23. She built a good criminal practice under the gender-neutral name “L. Exum Clement”.  A local judge dubbed her “Brother Exum,” and that stuck.

Clement was elected to the North Carolina House of Representatives in 1920, at a time when she herself could not vote. (The 19th Amendment was ratified the next year, in 1921). She was the first woman elected to the North Carolina General Assembly and the first woman legislator in the South. Upon her election, she told the Raleigh News and Observer, “I am by nature a very timid woman and very conservative too, 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.”

Legislation that she introduced

  • guaranteed secret ballots,
  • shortened divorce procedures for abandoned wives,
  • provided for testing dairy cattle and dairies for tuberculins (the “Pure Milk Bill”),
  • provided for yellow caution lights (between red and green) on traffic signals,
  • prohibited railroads from hiring illiterates to be firemen, brakemen or flagmen,
  • authorized sterilizing mentally incompetent persons, and
  • provided for the State to take over an Asheville home for unwed, pregnant teenaged girls.

While speaking to a hostile crowd in Asheville in support of the home for unwed mothers, Clement was pelted with rotten eggs and vegetables and called a Jezebel for aiding sinful girls. Clement promptly rejoined that she preferred eggs and vegetables to stones, as was the fate of women in biblical times, and she continued, “It is not for you or I to condemn or cast the first stone, but rather [for us] to render aid to the unfortunate so they may go their way and sin no more.” This is said to have calmed the crowd and prepared the way for enactment of the legislation. (On another occasion, an irate Asheville voter punched her in the face and broke her nose.)

After serving one term in the legislature, Clement, who had since married, chose not to run for re-election. She died in 1925 at age 31.

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