Remembering Buncombe’s groundbreaking female legislator

Written by on February 4, 2014 in Buncombe, Information, People, Politics, Preserving WNC Culture, Region, Resources, Top News, Topics Comments Off
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Lillian Exum Clement portrait

The Buncombe County native Lillian Exum Clement Stafford became the first female legislator in North Carolina — and in the South — before a tragic illness cut her life short. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Collection/Pack Memorial Library

ASHEVILLE — In her relatively short life, Lillian Exum Clement Stafford broke numerous barriers. A Buncombe County native who was the first woman to be elected to the N.C. General Assembly — and to any southern state legislature — she took office even before women, including her, were allowed to vote.

And that’s not all: She also was the first woman in North Carolina to practice law without male partners.

The late leader’s legacy is back in the spotlight, thanks to the recent announcement that her Asheville home, a century-old structure at 34 Hollywood St., has secured a preservation easement that will help keep her place in regional history intact.

Born Lillian Exum Clement in Black Mountain in 1894, she was practicing as a criminal attorney in Asheville in 1920 when the local Democratic Party recruited her to run for a N.C. House seat. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote, hadn’t quite been ratified yet. So as it happened, the landslide of votes that sent Clement to Raleigh were cast entirely by men.

Clement chose to serve only one two-year term, marrying Asheville newspaperman Elias Stafford in the middle of it and returning to Western North Carolina to serve as director of the State Hospital in Morganton before giving birth to her first and only child, a daughter. Complications from a premature delivery left her weak, and she contracted pneumonia, which took her life in 1925, when she was just 3o.

To mark the occasion of her home’s historic preservation, Carolina Public Press presents a roundup of online sources for learning more about this short-lived trailblazer.

Bios and tributes

UNC Press’s Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, now online at NCpedia.org, offers an entry on Stafford that emphasizes her productive stint in the legislature:

“An active representative, she introduced about seventeen bills, most of which passed. These included a measure prohibiting railroads from hiring illiterates for certain positions, one providing for the secret ballot, the ‘pure milk bill’ requiring tuberculin testing of dairy herds, and a bill reducing the time of abandonment necessary for divorce. Miss Clement was especially interested in getting the state to assume control of the Lindly Training School for unwed mothers and delinquent girls, located near Asheville.”

Lillian's House class

Stafford and her N.C. House colleagues. She’s the sole woman (annotated after the fact in this photo montage). Click for larger view. Courtesy North Carolina Collection/Pack Memorial Library

In Asheville, a state Highway Historical Marker, located at the intersection of Charlotte and College streets since 1999, notes the proximity of both Stafford’s former law office and her last home. See pictures of the marker and a bio of its subject here.

And the National Women’s History Museum, an online project founded in 1996 that seeks a bricks-and-mortar home in the nation’s capitol, features a bio that puts Stafford’s contributions in perspective. “I want to blaze a trail for other women,” Rep. Clement told a reporter in 1921. “I know that years from now there will be many other women in politics, but you have to start a thing.”

A host of memories

In 2002, historians with UNCA’s Special Collections staff interviewed Stafford’s daughter, Nancy Stafford Anders, in a wide-ranging oral history about family matters and memories of her mother. (A transcript can be read here, in PDF form.)

“Mother was [planning on] going back into politics, she just took a little time off, you know, to have me,” Anders recalled. “And I was a primi. Yes, that was my one claim to fame. I was Asheville’s first incubator baby.” Regarding her mother’s potential political future, she added: “Gosh, the party was going to run her for Congress, you know, then she died.”

Pack Memorial Library’s North Carolina Collection also holds a unique collection of Stafford-related photos, news clips and other items. See many of them here.

Stafford’s home, destined for preservation

Lillian Exum Clement Stafford house

The century-old house where Stafford lived out her final days will now be preserved. Jon Elliston/Carolina Public Press

Last week, the Preservation Society of Asheville & Buncombe County announced that it had helped Wingate Anders, who married Stafford’s daughter, obtain a preservation easement for Stafford’s final home.

Below is the text of that announcement:

Lillian Exum Clement House Protected by Preservation Easement

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The historic Lillian Exum Clement house at 34 Hollywood Street will be forever protected by a donation of a preservation easement to the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County. Wingate Anders of Greensboro, NC, owner of the historic house and widower of Lillian’s only daughter, made the donation of the easement to ensure the protection and preservation of this noteworthy historic site.

“We feel this house represents history important to Asheville, Buncombe County and the state,” said Anders. “It was the home of Lillian Exum Clement Stafford, a female lawyer with an independent law practice at a time when few women held any significant type of job outside of the home.”

The house, located in the Chestnut Hill National Register Historic District, was built in 1914 by George Clement, Lillian’s father. Lillian is noted for being the first woman elected to the North Carolina General Assembly and the first woman to serve in any state legislature in the Southern United States.

The protection offered by the Preservation Society will include permanent prevention of demolition and architectural review of any future rehabilitation, ensuring that the historic and architectural context of the house will continue to remain intact for future generations.

“Lillian Exum Clement’s legacy is that of major advances in the cause of female representation as legal professionals and policy makers as elected officials at the State level,” said Jack Thomson, Executive Director of the Preservation Society. “The work of our Preservation Easements program is designed to protect the historic built environment of our community, the historic houses and neighborhoods that depict the important people and events of our past,” he said.

“Our Easements are designed to work with private property owners who desire the story and integrity of their historic place to be protected. As the private, non-profit preservation leader for our community, the Preservation Society has used this tool to protect the 1890 Gudger House in Montford, the 1898 Manor on Charlotte Street and the 1846 Reynolds Mansion in Woodfin, among many others,” Thomson said.

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About the Author

Jon Elliston

Jon Elliston is the Investigations and Open Government Editor at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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