Making Room at the Table

How is representation in the US Congress changing and why does it matter?

In 1968, Brooklyn educator and state legislator Shirley Chisholm made history as the first black woman elected to Congress. While neither the first woman nor the first African American to serve in Congress, “unbought and unbossed” Chisholm boldly challenged the status quo and later became the first woman to seek a major party’s presidential nomination. She sparked inspiration for minorities and women to pursue inclusion in public service when she declared, “If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair."

100 years after American women gained the right to vote with the Nineteenth Amendment and 50 years after Shirley Chisholm was sworn into Congress, the 116th Congress is the most diverse federal legislative body in American history. The Congress was sworn in by Nancy Pelosi, who in 2007 became the first female Speaker of the House. She is now serving in this capacity for a second time.

The careers of Shirley Chisholm, Nancy Pelosi, and others now serving in Congress build on a long history of former outsiders seeking access to national political power. During the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War, the first African Americans were elected to Congress, such as Senator Hiram Revels and Rep. Joseph Rainey, holding seats of former slaveholders. Before Rep. Chisholm, several women served in Congress. Some of these female legislators took up seats first held by their husbands; others ran for office in regular elections, like Rep. Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, in 1916, or Senator Margaret Chase Smith, elected in 1948.1

At this political moment of greater diversity in Congress, students can learn about Shirley Chisholm’s groundbreaking career and connect her story to the evolving demographics of today’s Congress. Teachers can guide students to examine the demographics of the 116th Congress, explore the meaning of representation, and discuss how diverse representation may impact American politics.

How is representation in the US Congress changing and why does it matter?

  1. Who Was Shirley Chisholm and What Did She Represent?

    View the short video Before Obama And Maxine Waters There Was Shirley Chisholm (3:48) from The Root.

    After watching the video, allow students to share their impressions of Rep. Shirley Chisholm with Facing History’s Wraparound teaching strategy. Ask students to choose one word to complete the sentence, “Shirley Chisholm was . . . ”

    Discuss how Shirley Chisholm was a groundbreaking politician. Suggested questions include:

    • What was Shirley Chisholm’s path to the US Congress?
    • Why do you think Chisholm referred to herself as “unbossed and unbought”?
    • Shirley Chisholm famously said that “If they won’t give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair.” What did she mean by “a seat at the table”? Why did she think it was important for more people—including women and people of color—to claim a seat at the table?
  2. Who Has a Seat at the Table in the US Congress Today?

    Share The Changing Face of Congress in 6 Charts from Pew Research Center with students. After students review the charts, ask them to consider:

    • How has representation in Congress changed over time?
    • These graphics chart changes in representation by gender, race and ethnicity, immigrant background, education and professional background, and religious affiliation. Why might the Pew Research Center have chosen to highlight these particular categories? What other categories would you be interested in seeing?
    • Why do you think it might matter that Congress is becoming more representative of the United States population?

    (Note: To see an overview by race and gender in Congress during the twentieth century, refer to pages 34–37 of Vital Statistics Members of Congress by the Brookings Institution. Students can compare diversity between the 116th Congress and the 91st Congress, when Shirley Chisholm was inducted.)

  3. Why Does Representation Matter?

    In January 2019, Ayanna Pressley became the first African American woman to represent the state of Massachusetts in Congress and was able to fulfill her dream of working out of Shirley Chisholm’s old office. Pressley said, “It seems like change is on the way . . . People who feel seen and heard for the first time in their lives, a stakehold in democracy and a promise for our future . . . That is the real victory.” 2

    Share Pressley’s quotation and Twitter post with students. Then discuss:

    • Why might it have been important to Rep. Ayanna Pressley to claim Shirley Chisholm’s former Congressional office space?
    • Why do you think Pressley claimed that more people feel “seen and heard” and have “a stakehold in democracy”?
    • Do you think that having a Congress that more fully reflects the American population strengthens democracy? Why or why not?

Citations

Get More Tips for Teaching Current Events
Sign up to receive our latest teaching ideas in a short biweekly email.

Search Our Global Collection

Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.