- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 24, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - A simple inscription written in 1900 in a Bible discovered earlier this year carries with it much of the history of progressive politics in western North Carolina.

“For Exum Clement, with best wishes for many happy birthdays, from E S Vanderbilt, March 12, 1900,” the inscription reads.

Clement was Lillian Exum Clement Stafford, who was not only the first woman elected to the North Carolina General Assembly but also the first woman to serve in any state legislature in the South. Lillian’s List, the group that supports female pro-abortion rights candidates for office, was named after her. Stafford didn’t go by her first name and instead was known as Exum Clement until she married.

Vanderbilt was Edith Vanderbilt, wife of George Vanderbilt, who built Biltmore Estate in Asheville. She supported causes such as literacy and was the first female president of the North Carolina Agricultural Society and the State Fair.

“They say if someone were to trace the influence that Edith Vanderbilt had on various people, including on Exum Clement and go to Exum Clement, and trace the importance of her faith and influence on many people that followed, you would come to believe that the Vanderbilt-Clement (connection) was a very significant one in history, and the Bible is an iconic object representing that,” said Rob Neufeld, a writer and western North Carolina historian.

The Bible was discovered earlier this year as Wingate Anders, 90, the widower of Stafford’s only child, Nancy, and a family friend cleared personal belongings from the house that Stafford’s father had built for his daughters. As the friend, Lynn Brogan of Greensboro, thumbed through the heavily annotated Bible, she found the inscription.

“I was just thunderstruck not only because of the legacy of Exum being so important, but also seeing Edith Vanderbilt there,” Brogan said.

Stafford opened her law office in 1917. She was elected in 1920, two months before Congress passed the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote and took office in 1921, the same year she got married. She lobbied for several bills, including laws for private voting booths and a secret ballot, with most of her 17 bills passing. She served one term.

“I am, by nature, very conservative, but I am firm in my convictions,” she told a reporter. “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.”

She gave birth to her daughter in 1923 and died of pneumonia in February 1925. Although numerous records show Stafford was born in 1894, new research shows she likely was born in 1886.

Anders hopes to have the Bible restored, then donate it to an institution with the understanding that others can use it for swearing-in ceremonies. One candidate has already done that. Ellen Frost of Black Mountain, which is also where Lillian Stafford was born, used the Bible when she was sworn in as a Buncombe County commissioner.

Nancy Stafford died in 2006, and Anders says it’s his love for his wife that inspires him to keep her mother’s memory alive.

“I’m just doing what she would have done,” he said.

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Online:

Buncombe County library online exhibit about Stafford: http://www.buncombecounty.org/Governing/Depts/Library/Gallery.aspx

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Martha Waggoner can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc

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