Past Times

Glass ceiling broke in 1921 for N.C. House

The suffrage movement set up shop on Fayetteville Street in 1920.
The suffrage movement set up shop on Fayetteville Street in 1920. Barden Collection, State Archives of North Carolina

Although North Carolina wouldn’t ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving women the right to vote for another 50 years, voters wasted no time in sending a woman to Raleigh in 1921. Lillian Exum Clement, a Democrat from Buncombe County, became the state’s first female legislator and was introduced in the pages of The News & Observer.

Behind a vase of fragrant narcissi and fern contributed by the Raleigh branch of the North Carolina League of Women Voters, Miss L. Exum Clement, “the lady from Buncombe,” first woman legislator ever to have official place in the North Carolina Capitol, yesterday morning took her seat in the House of Representatives at the opening of the 1921 session of the General Assembly. …

The bill which she will present to the Legislature, and in which she is most interested is one to have the State take over the Lindley Training Home for fallen women, which is located near Asheville. This home is not connected with Samarcand Manor to which women of all degrees of past immorality are admitted. The Lindley Home is for those who have taken only the first wrong step. …

Having received her training in a private law school Miss Clement began the practice of law in Asheville in 1907. She has made a specialty of the problems relating to women, particularly of divorce. The majority of her clients have been women. It will be remembered that in her campaign for the Legislature, before the passage of the 19th amendment, she defeated the opposing Independent candidate, who received only 41 votes, by a majority of over ten thousand. The N&O Jan. 6, 1921

When the session ended in March, Clement reflected on her time as a lawmaker.

The first woman legislator in the history of North Carolina, Miss L. Exum Clement, representing Buncombe county in the General Assembly of 1921, has come to Raleigh, taken her seat in the House of Representatives and returned to her mountain haunts, and the capitol is still standing and the Old North State to all appearances is still as safe as it was before this unpretentious lady modestly undertook to aid in the guidance of its affairs.

Miss Clement made a pleasant impression on all who met her as a person who knew her own mind, was entirely aware of what she wanted and intended to go after it in a firm if perfectly unobtrusive manner. Her legislative career will probably be best known for the divorce bill which she sponsored and pushed through the General Assembly. She was also interested in the measure favoring the secret ballot, which failed to pass, and in all forms of public welfare.

The people of North Carolina have an impression of Miss Clement’s work in the Legislature as that of a sane, moderate, public-spirited woman. Miss Clement has her own impressions of her position in the recent Legislature, and she writes them to the News and Observer as follows:

“I believe the impression I got of the General Assembly is the same that a man would have gotten in my place; the development of the State, the enlarging of her possibilities, the better protection of her people, and the safe-guarding of the Democratic party. But the thing that impressed me most was the manner in which the body of men received me. Knowing that North Carolina had made such a strong fight against equal suffrage, I went to Raleigh with much misgiving. After spending seventy days with these men it fills me with great satisfaction to be able to say that not a man among them was anything but kind, courteous, thoughtful and helpful.

“At no time and under no conditions was I made to feel that I was an outsider. The men who fought equal suffrage the hardest told me on my arrival that the battle was over and they proved themselves good losers by giving me the same kind treatment that the champions of equal suffrage did.” The N&O March 13, 1921

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Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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