Descriptive Representation in Congress
In some cases, representation can seem to have very little to do with the substantive issues representatives in Congress tend to debate. Instead, proper representation for some is rooted in the racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, gender, and sexual identity of the representatives themselves. This form of representation is called descriptive representation.
At one time, there was relatively little concern about descriptive representation in Congress. A major reason is that until well into the twentieth century, white men of European background constituted an overwhelming majority of the voting population. African Americans were routinely deprived of the opportunity to participate in democracy, and Hispanics and other minority groups were fairly insignificant in number and excluded by the states. While women in many western states could vote sooner, all women were not able to exercise their right to vote nationwide until passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, and they began to make up more than 5 percent of either chamber only in the 1990s.
Many advances in women’s rights have been the result of women’s greater engagement in politics and representation in the halls of government, especially since the founding of the National Organization for Women in 1966 and the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC) in 1971. The NWPC was formed by Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, and other leading feminists to encourage women’s participation in political parties, elect women to office, and raise money for their campaigns. For example, Patsy Mink (D-HI), the first Asian American woman elected to Congress, was the coauthor of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, Title IX of which prohibits sex discrimination in education. Mink had been interested in fighting discrimination in education since her youth, when she opposed racial segregation in campus housing while a student at the University of Nebraska. She went to law school after being denied admission to medical school because of her gender. Like Mink, many other women sought and won political office, many with the help of the NWPC. Today, EMILY’s List, a PAC founded in 1985 to help elect pro-choice Democratic women to office, plays a major role in fundraising for female candidates. In the 2012 general election, 80 percent of the candidates endorsed by EMILY’s List won a seat.
Patsy Mink (a), a Japanese American from Hawaii, was the first Asian American woman elected to the House of Representatives. In her successful 1970 congressional campaign, Bella Abzug (b) declared, “This woman’s place is in the House… the House of Representatives!”
In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, African American representatives also began to enter Congress in increasing numbers. In 1971, to better represent their interests, these representatives founded the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), an organization that grew out of a Democratic select committee formed in 1969. Founding members of the CBC include John Conyers (D-MI), currently the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives, Charles Rangel (D-NY), and Shirley Chisholm, a founder of the NWPC and the first African American woman to be elected to the House of Representatives.
This photo shows the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which at the time of its founding in 1971 had only thirteen members. Currently, forty-six African Americans serve in Congress.
In recent decades, Congress has become much more descriptively representative of the United States. The 114th Congress, which began in January 2015, had a historically large percentage of racial and ethnic minorities. African Americans made up the largest percentage, with forty-eight members, while Latinos accounted for thirty-two members, up from nineteen just over a decade before.
Yet, demographically speaking, Congress as a whole is still a long way from where the country is and remains largely white, male, and wealthy. For example, although more than half the U.S. population is female, only 20 percent of Congress is. Congress is also overwhelmingly Christian.
The diversity of the country is not reflected in the U.S. Congress, whose current membership is approximately 80 percent male, 82 percent white, and 92 percent Christian.