Representative Iris Blitch of Georgia embodied a peculiar mixture of progressive feminism and southern conservatism during her long political career, which included four terms in the U.S. House. As a Georgia state legislator she pushed women’s rights concerns. In the U.S. House, while displaying considerable legislative ability, she hewed to more traditional lines, advocating on behalf of agricultural interests in her rural district while denouncing federal efforts to enforce civil rights in the South. Over the span of her career, Blitch earned a reputation as a quick–tongued legislator who enjoyed the give–and–take of debate. “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in politics,” she once recalled.1
Iris Faircloth was born near Vidalia, Georgia, on April 25, 1912, daughter of James Louis Faircloth and Marietta Ridgdill Faircloth. She attended public elementary schools in Georgia. Both of her parents died by the time she was nine, so Iris Faircloth moved to Frederick, Maryland, to live with her two older sisters. She graduated from Hagerstown High School and returned to Georgia in 1929 to attend the University of Georgia at Athens. After her first year of school, Iris Faircloth married businessman Brooks Erwin Blitch, Jr. The couple raised two children, Betty and Brooks, while working together in their pharmacy, lumber, cattle, and fertilizer businesses, as well as tending to the family farm in Homerville.
Iris Blitch became involved in politics during the Great Depression, out of concern for the lack of assistance for people suffering from the economic disaster. At the time, Georgia politics were controlled at the executive level by Democratic Governor Eugene Talmadge’s political machine, characterized by its popular conservative, rural, and anti–New Deal stance.2 In this context, Blitch first ran for elective office as a Democratic candidate for the Georgia state house of representatives in 1940. Although she was unsuccessful, she later won a seat in the Georgia state senate in 1946. Two years later, Blitch was elected to the state house of representatives. While in the legislature, she managed to pass a bill to allow women to serve on Georgia juries. When opponents objected that women were too delicate for “indecent” courtroom responsibilities, Blitch shot back, “then it is time to bring women into the court rooms to clean them up.”3 Blitch also returned to school in 1949 and attended South Georgia College at Douglas, where she studied political science, accounting, and English. After losing her 1950 re–election campaign, she was elected to the state senate in 1952 and served until December 1954 as a close ally of the administration of Governor Herman Talmadge (Eugene’s son) and was soon recognized as a top leader in the Talmadge machine.4 During this time she also was heavily involved with the national Democratic Party, serving from 1948 to 1956 as one of the eight members of the Democratic National Committee’s executive committee.
In 1954, Iris Blitch set her sights on the U.S. House of Representatives. In the race for the Democratic nomination for a southeastern Georgia seat, Blitch faced four–term incumbent Representative William McDonald “Don” Wheeler, an Alma, Georgia, native, Air Force veteran, and lawyer. Wheeler had made headlines in June 1953 when he introduced a motion to impeach Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas after Douglas granted a temporary stay of execution to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs had been convicted of passing along classified atomic information to the Soviet Union.5 Blitch blasted Wheeler for his absence during a number of House votes and for what she described as his failure to protect the district’s large agricultural constituency. She also advocated a major water conservation program for the South, along with the development of the harbor in Brunswick, Georgia.6 In the September 1954 Democratic primary, Blitch won by about 1,400 votes—46 to 44 percent in a three–way race—carrying 13 of the district’s 20 counties. In the then–one–party system in place in Georgia, the nomination was tantamount to election, and Blitch had no opposition in the general election. The Congresswoman also was unopposed in each of her three succeeding elections7. Throughout her House career, Blitch ran a district office from her converted garage at her Homerville residence.8 The family bought a Washington, D.C., residence, but Brooks Blitch commuted to Homerville to tend to his cattle and timber businesses.
Benefiting from her strong party ties, and from her connections to powerful southern Congressmen, Blitch was given a seat on the popular Public Works Committee, where she served on three subcommittees: Roads, Rivers and Harbors, and Public Buildings and Grounds. As a member of Public Works, she steered a series of federal projects into her district including the construction of many post office and public buildings and the development of a major port at Brunswick Harbor. Blitch also proved to be something of a conservationist and won appropriations to protect the Okefenokee Swamp from overdevelopment and the threat of reduced water levels. During her first year, she introduced a bill providing for the conservation of water on small farms and the drainage of lowlands to make them suitable for growing timber. Her amendment to the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act encouraged small water conservation projects by providing individual property owners with federal funds.9 The bill was passed during her second term in the House. “The management of soil and water resources must be the concern of everyone who loves his Nation,” Blitch once remarked in a floor speech.10
Much of her focus was devoted to the agricultural issues that affected her rural district. Working closely with the Agriculture Committee, she tried to meet the needs of farmers of wheat, tobacco, and jute, a fibrous material used for carpet backing. Seeking to protect the jute–backing industry in her district and to encourage its growth throughout southern Georgia, Blitch favored amending the 1930 Tariff Act to make it more difficult for foreign–made jute to enter the country.11 Business–oriented as well, she expended much effort on attracting other industries to her district.12 Blitch was a fiscal conservative who opposed federal funding for education. She described efforts to allocate federal money for public schools and universities as “a naked lust for national power, rather than a pious beneficence”; an intrusion of federal oversight on local, particularly southern, school systems.13 Along similar lines, she argued throughout her four terms that the U.S. should not provide large foreign aid packages to its Cold War allies and other developing nations. “We cannot continue throwing good money after bad just hoping that it will save us,” she told House colleagues. “It is up to the people of the different countries, including the United States of America, to assume some responsibility for themselves.”14
In March 1956, Blitch was part of a group of 100 Members of Congress—19 Senators and 81 Representatives—from 11 southern states who signed the “Southern Manifesto.” The document pledged the signatories to work to reverse the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing racial segregation in public schools. Many southerners viewed the decision as infringing on state’s rights, and the “Manifesto” denounced it as a “clear abuse of judicial powers.”15 Blitch also attacked a proposed voting rights amendment then on the House Floor as “iniquitous, infamous” and a “cancer of indecencies.” In reaction to federal efforts to enforce civil rights legislation in the South, Blitch argued that “in an age where millions have died to preserve freedom, the executive, the judiciary, the legislative branches of the United States are destroying it.”16 She blasted a proposed 1956 Civil Rights Bill as a measure designed to sow internal discord between southern blacks and whites. “If you do not think that this bill is a Communist plan, then you are not using the brain that God gave you,” she declared in a floor speech. “Russia would rejoice at the passage of this bill because it would accomplish what she wants. It would divide and separate us.”17 During debate on federal aid to education in 1956, Blitch went so far as to argue that “a grave cloud of doubt” hung over the “legality” of the post– Civil War amendments to the Constitution, including those outlawing slavery, guaranteeing citizenship rights for all Americans, and conferring voting rights to African–American men.18 She also argued against the legislation which eventually was signed into law as the Civil Rights Bill of 1957.19
Due to severe arthritis, Blitch declined to run for renomination for a fifth term in 1962. Among the 10 colleagues who spoke about her retirement on the House Floor, Majority Leader Carl Albert of Oklahoma remarked, “I have never known anyone more persistent in her devotion to duty. I have seen her sit here on the floor attending to every item of duty when she was ill and in pain. She is a real soldier.”20 Not long after she left Congress, however, Blitch once again made headlines. In August 1964, she announced her decision to leave the Democratic Party to support the Republican presidential candidacy of Senator Barry M. Goldwater. “In my political lifetime,” Blitch said during her endorsement of Goldwater, “only one leader has come forward to give the American people a choice between a more centralized state and the complete dignity of the individual.”21Afterward, Blitch retired from active politics and settled on St. Simons Island off the southeastern coast of Georgia. Late in life, Blitch moderated her stance on civil rights and supported then–Governor of Georgia Jimmy Carter when he declared that “the time for racial discrimination is over.”22 In 1988, she moved to San Diego, California, to be nearer to her daughter. Iris Blitch died there on August 19, 1993.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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