When Lillian Exum Clement was born in 1894 in the highlands of North Carolina, little did her parents know that the story of women in the General Assembly had begun.
Clement was determined to study law after finishing high school in Asheville and studying at Asheville Business College. She took a job as a sheriff’s deputy and studied at night with private tutors. After earning one of the highest scores on the bar exam among 70 students, she became a criminal lawyer, the first female attorney in North Carolina without male partners.
In 1920, the Buncombe County Democratic Party asked 26-year-old Clement to run for a seat in the North Carolina House of Representatives. She beat two male opponents in the primary election before the Equal Suffrage Amendment had passed. As the Democratic candidate in a traditionally one-party state, Clement sailed through the general election. She was elected by a margin of 10,368 to 41. Not only was she the first woman to serve in the North Carolina General Assembly, but also the first woman to serve in any state legislature in the South.
Clement said of her experience running for office:
“…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.”
Excerpts taken from “Notable North Carolina Women” by Jennifer Ravi, 1992; and “Women of the North Carolina General Assembly,” issued by the North Carolina Secretary of State’s Office, 1995.