History was made in Georgia 60 years ago this week. The State of Georgia could claim that two women had served the state in the United States Congress. Moreover, Gov. Thomas Hardwick, a one time resident of Dublin, had appointed Rebecca Latimer Felton to a seat to fill out the remaining term of the late Senator Thomas E. Watson in the United States Senate in 1921 as a show of support for the rights of women to vote.
Florence Gibbs was elected in the fall of 1940 to fill out the term of her late husband, Congressman W. Ben Gibbs. Helen Douglas Mankin won a special election in 1946, with strong support from African American voters, who voted en mass for the first time.
But it was on January 3, 1955 when Iris Faircloth Blitch, took her seat in the Congress as the first woman from Georgia to serve in Congress after being elected in a regular election. This political activist from the railroad village of Normantown in northern Toombs County had already made her mark in Georgia politics.
Born in the southeastern region of East Central Georgia on April 25, 1912, as the second youngest of the eight children of James Louis Faircloth and Marietta Rigdell Faircloth, Iris was forced to live with her older sisters when she became an orphan at the age of nine. Her father's family were natives of Emanuel County.
Blitch graduated from a high school in Hagerstown, Maryland before returning to Georgia to attend classes at the University of Georgia. She left school to marry Brooks Blitch, a pharmacist from Homerville, Georgia.
With a passion to educate herself, she immersed herself into reading about history and current events and taught herself to become a newspaper writer. Blitch found her niche in politics and joined the Democratic party, the only viable party in Georgia at the time.
Blitch suffered a narrow defeat in her first political campaign in 1940, losing by slightly more than 25 votes for a seat in the State House of Representatives. She won her first election in 1946, capturing a seat in the Georgia Senate. Senator Blitch switched to the other chamber of the Georgia legislature when she was elected to the Georgia House in 1948. After failing to win reelection in 1950, the attractive, brunette legislator returned to the Georgia Senate in 1952.
Iris Blitch's being a woman led to her being named as a National Committeewoman from Georgia from 1948 to 1956 to the Democratic National Committee. Blitch also served in a similar state capacity from 1946 to 1956.
In the off-year election of 1954 during Dwight Eisenhower's first term as president, Blitch decided to do the unthinkable - to run for Congress in the Deep South, where women were systematically excluded from nomination by the Democratic party politics. And she won, defeating the incumbent, William M. Wheeler.
As the first female in the history of Georgia to win a regular scheduled election for a seat in Congress, Blitch, entered office on January 3, 1955 and served for ten years, representing the 8th Congressional District, which encompassed counties from Southeast Georgia. While in the Congress, she served on the Public Works Committee and the National Resources Advisory Council.
Because of her debilitating arthritis, Representative Blitch retired in 1964 and moved to Saint Simons, Georgia, repeatedly turning down repeated requests to run again primarily because of her husband's illness.
A congressional web site writer wrote, "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."
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."
Iris Blitch shocked her colleagues in 1964, when she changed her party alliance and joined the Republican party. Of the party's 1964 Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, Blitch remarked, "In my political lifetime 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."
Originally a supporter of segregation as were nearly all members of her party in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, Iris Blitch became more tolerant of the rights of African Americans in supporting Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, who became the first Georgia governor to do so in the 1970s.
In 1988, Iris Blitch, who once remarked that she always had politics in her blood, moved to be closer to her daughter, in San Diego, California, where Iris died on August 19, 1993. She is buried in Pinelawn Cemetery, Homerville, Georgia.
As much as things have changed in national and state politics in the sixty years after Iris Blitch took her seat in the United States House of Representatives, the more things have stayed pretty much the same. Georgia, with her fourteen seats in the House and two seats in the Senate, is without a female representative. Since Congresswoman Blitch left office fifty years ago, only Cynthia McGivney and Denise Majid have been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. The total number of women who have served Georgia in the House of Representatives and the Senate is six, second in the Deep South only to Florida (no longer considered the Deep South by many) which boasts of 11 women. So the question remains, when will another Iris Blitch step forward and change the face of politics in Georgia?