Valley Rewind: Women's suffrage movement and Lillian Exum Clement

Courtesy of Swannanoa Valley Museum
Special to Black Mountain News
North Fork Valley native Lillian Exum Clement (1824-1924) was the first female legislator in the South.

On Aug. 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, making women's suffrage a national law. One day before, on Aug. 17, North Carolina lost its chance to be the deciding vote on passage of the amendment. A special session of the North Carolina General Assembly voted to postpone a decision on the amendment until 1921. When Tennessee did vote in favor of suffrage, a second meeting of the North Carolina General Assembly still voted against ratification. Knowing that the amendment would pass regardless, legislators voted against it with an aim at maintaining support from voters who were against suffrage for women and people of color. The General Assembly of North Carolina would not endorse the 19th Amendment until 1971. The actions of the General Assembly in 1920 do not erase the fact that North Carolina hosted several iterations of the women's suffrage movement since the 1890s. In 1913, Gertrude Weil formed the North Carolina Equal Suffrage League in Charlotte. Two years later, Lillian Exum Clement (pictured above), a Swannanoa Valley native who received her first schooling in Black Mountain, started a branch of the Congressional Union (later renamed the National Woman's Party) in Asheville. In 1920, Clement was elected by all-male voters as the first woman to serve in the North Carolina legislature and in the Southern United States. By the time Clement took office in 1921, women's suffrage was national law.