- Historic Sites
October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
The determination of congressional districts has since 1789 been left to the state legislatures. In this century the shift from an agrarian to an urban society was not reflected by the states in drawing district lines, and by the end of World War n serious inequities in representation had developed. In Illinois, for example, no redistricting occurred between 1901 and 1948; as a result the Chicago area, with more than half the state’s population, sent only ten members to Congress, while the remainder of the state, accounting for about 46 per cent of the population, held fifteen seats. Various efforts by Congress to enforce federal standards for drawing district lines failed over the years. A comprehensive bill that outlawed gerrymandering and set deadlines for state action on redistricting was reported out of committee in 1971, but like its predecessors in 1964, 1965, and 1967, it died on the floor.
As a result almost all efforts to establish equitable and contiguous districts for representation have come about through court action. Beginning with the Supreme Court’s “one man, one vote” decision in 1962 and three subsequent decisions in 1964, state legislatures must draw district lines under a rule of equal representation or be liable to litigation. Despite some resistance to court orders and continuing court action in some states, the overall effect on the current Congress has been substantial. As reported by the Congressional Quarterly , in 1960 only nine election districts out of 435 deviated less than one per cent from the state “ideal population district,” while 236 deviated by ten per cent or more. In 1974 eighty-eight districts are within one per cent of the ideal, and only three districts vary from five to ten per cent from the norm.
Despite the Founders’ intent, neither house historically has reflected the population as a whole. Women and minority groups, for example, have been consistently underrepresented, and over the last fifty years the median age of members of both houses has generally exceeded the median levels of their constituencies.
Fewer than a hundred women have been elected or appointed to Congress; moreover, not all of them have served, either because the woman herself refused the appointment for personal reasons or because Congress adjourned before she could take her seat.
• The first woman to enter the House was Jeannette Rankin of Montana in 1916. She served one term before running unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1918. Re-elected to a second House term in 1940, she earned the distinction of having cast a vote against our participation in both World War I and World War n.
• Since 1921 at least one woman has attended each session of the House. In 1947 there were ten congresswomen; in 1959, fifteen. At present there are sixteen.
• Only six women have served in the Senate. The first was eighty-seven-year-old Rebecca Felton, a Georgia widow appointed on the death of Thomas Watson in 1922. She attended one day’s session and then refused to stand for re-election. In 1954 Nebraska’s two senators were both women appointed to fill vacancies on a short-term basis.
• Margaret Chase Smith of Maine was the first woman to be elected to the Senate in her own right, serving four consecutive terms until her defeat in 1972. There are no women in the current Senate.
A total of forty-two blacks, thirty-nine in the House and three in the Senate, have served in Congress since the Civil War established their right to do so. The first to enter the House was Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina in 1869. A year later Hiram Revels, a minister from Mississippi, entered the Senate.
• Between 1870 and 1901 twenty blacks served in the House; all of them were Republicans, and all of them were from southern states—eight from South Carolina, four from North Carolina, three from Alabama, and one each from Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Virginia.
• The first black elected to the House in this century was Oscar De Priest of Illinois, who took his seat in 1929. Since then there has been at least one black in the House in each congressional term. By 1969 there were nine. Present membership is fifteen.
• Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, first seated in 1966, is the only black senator in this century.
• There are currently two Mexican-Americans, two Chinese-Americans, and two Puerto Ricans, including the delegate from the home island, in the House. One ChineseAmerican and one Japanese-American sit in the Senate. Apparently no full-blooded American Indian has ever served in Congress.
Not unexpectedly, lawyers have dominated both chambers over the years, representing between 40 and 60 per cent of the House membership at any given time and, as in the present Congress, as high as 70 per cent of the membership in the Senate. In general, and again not unexpectedly, the level of formal education in Congress has been well above the national average. Only twenty members of the House at the present time are not college graduates, and all but three of these attended college for one or two years. Currently 50 per cent of its members hold advanced degrees in law or master’s degrees. Seven hold Ph.D.’s.