Known for her “progressive feminism and southern conservatism,” Iris F. Blitch broke political ground for women during the 1950s and 1960s. When elected to the Georgia General Assembly in 1948, Blitch was the only female legislator in Georgia, and she became the first to serve two terms in the state senate. In 1958 she was one of only fifteen women in the U.S. House of Representatives, and she later became the first woman from Georgia to serve a full term in the U.S. Congress.
Education and Early Life
Iris Faircloth Blitch was born the second youngest of eight children in Normantown—near Vidalia—in Toombs County on April 25, 1912. Her parents, Marietta Ridgdill and James Louis Faircloth, both died by the time she was nine, and the young Iris moved to Maryland, where she lived with her older sisters. There she developed a passion for politics as a member of the debate team at Hagerstown High School. After graduating in 1929, she enrolled at the University of Georgia in Athens, where she met Brooks Erwin Blitch Jr., who owned thousands of acres of farmland and the ACME Pharmacy in Homerville, the seat of Clinch County. She left school to marry him in Jacksonville, Florida, on October 11, 1929. The couple settled in Homerville, and Iris Blitch returned to school in 1949, attending South Georgia College (later South Georgia State College) in Douglas.
After witnessing fellow Georgians suffer during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Blitch began participating in politics and writing for a local newspaper. She first ran for election to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1940 but was defeated by twenty-seven votes. In 1946 she won a seat in the Georgia Senate, serving from 1947 to 1948. In 1948 Blitch won a seat in the Georgia house, serving until 1950 when she lost a bid for reelection. In 1952 she returned to the state senate, serving from 1953 to 1954 and emerging as a top leader in Governor Herman Talmadge’s political machine. She also served as the state’s Democratic national committeewoman from 1948 to 1956 and was one of only eight members composing the national party’s executive committee. Active in the state party as well, she served as the assistant secretary to the State Democratic Executive Committee from 1946 to 1956.
Although Blitch advocated on behalf of women, she never regarded herself as a champion of women’s rights. As she stated: “I’ve never been just a woman’s candidate. I feel proud, of course, that women’s organizations have backed my campaigns. I also have been provoked by women who complain about political conditions and then refuse to get out and face the voters.” While in the Georgia General Assembly, she successfully fought to pass the Women’s Jury Bill, which guaranteed women the right to serve on juries. While opponents thought women were “too delicate,” Blitch charged that it was “time to bring women into the court rooms to clean them up.”
In 1954 Blitch ran for a seat in the U.S. Congress, facing four-term incumbent Representative William McDonald “Don” Wheeler. Blitch won the election and ran unopposed in successive elections, representing the rural Eighth Congressional District of Georgia from 1955 to 1963. During these years she continued to work in Homerville, from an office set up in the family’s garage. She eventually bought a home in Washington, D.C., with her husband, who frequently commuted between the nation’s capital and Georgia to tend to his businesses.
After fires devastated the Okefenokee Swamp—located in her district—the congresswoman became concerned with conservation and sponsored legislation known informally as the “Blitch Bill.” Under her guidance the Okefenokee Swamp Bill passed in 1956. This legislation provided funds to build sills for maintaining water levels along the Suwannee River and to construct the Swamp Perimeter Road, which improved access to the swamp in the event of wildfires.
Blitch used her position on the Public Works Committee to support the construction of the port in Brunswick. She also sponsored the Small-Watershed Bill, which amended the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act by providing landowners with federal grants to complete water conservation projects. Finally, she attempted to negotiate more favorable trade terms for south Georgia’s jute (a vegetable fiber used in carpets) industry, working with the Agriculture Committee to strengthen the 1930 Tariff Act’s protection of domestic suppliers.
In 1956 Blitch and ninety-nine fellow southern members of Congress signed the “Southern Manifesto,” vowing to reverse the 1954 Brown v. Board decision, which overturned the principle of “separate but equal” in segregated public education, on the basis on state’s rights. As a fiscal conservative, she rejected federal funding and oversight for public schools as an obstruction of local power. Blitch also denounced the proposed Civil Rights Bill as a divisive “communist plan.” In 1964 she left the Democratic Party, declaring support for Republican presidential candidate Barry M. Goldwater. Later in life, she tempered her views on civil rights and pledged support to Georgia’s Democratic governor Jimmy Carter.
In 1962 Blitch chose not to run for a fifth term, a decision based in part on her own severe arthritis as well as her husband’s poor health. Erwin Blitch died in 1967 at the age of fifty-nine. Iris Blitch retired to St. Simons Island, and in 1988 she moved to San Diego, California, to be closer to her daughter.
Blitch died on August 19, 1993, and is buried in Pine Forest Cemetery, in Homerville.