What Constitutes Activism?

July 2020

July 19th marks the anniversary of the first women’s rights convention ever held in the United States. The Seneca Falls Convention spanned two days in 1848 and was attended by 300 people, including organizer Elizabeth Cady Stanton and African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

At the event, Stanton introduced the “Declaration of Sentiments,” a call to action for American women to stand up for their rightful place in society with equal access to politics, education, jobs and opportunities. At the time, women were denied many educational options, held to inferior roles throughout society, and unable to control their own property if they were married since the husband legally owned everything, including the wife’s earnings.

Convention attendees passed a total of 12 resolutions with unanimous vote, but one resolution required impassioned speeches before it narrowly passed. That divisive resolution was the one demanding a woman’s right to vote.

It seems hard to imagine women’s suffrage being such a contentious issue, but this thorny concept drove a deep wedge between women activists, and that fight dragged on for 72 years before women finally won the right to vote.

Taking a 172-year peek back in time, one might not fully appreciate the bravery that women’s rights activists had to bring to that fight. They were ridiculed so badly, sources report a number of people who signed the Declaration of Sentiments at Seneca Falls later withdrew their support from that manifesto.

What constitutes successful activism? Does it require more sacrifice than speaking out? Does speaking out result in sacrifices in and of itself? If we do not join the fight, are we unworthy of the benefits secured by those who openly fought for our rights? Does everyone have their own fight to fight, without judgment, influenced by the cards life has dealt them?

These are some questions explored in the entanglements found in Songs from the Canary Cage. One of my favorite passages finds Shay uncharacteristically plucking a chicken while being interrogated by her great aunt Lilith. That passage follows:


Lilith examined Shay for a moment and then said, “This ain’t about me. This is about you, missy. What’s yer story?”

“I – I just got married. I’m going to school. I’m a feminist. What? What more do you want to know?”

“A feminist, huh? What rallies have ya’ been to?”


“Yeah, rallies.”

The only rally Shay had ever attended was a pep rally, where she stood atop the cheerleader pyramid, one triumphant fist pointed skyward. Oh, there had been plenty of opportunity for her to participate in other types of rallies. Equal rights rallies. Equal pay rallies. Anti-racism rallies. Gay pride rallies. But rallies? She thought. Nope. Pep rallies. That was it. And something told her she’d best keep that one to herself.

Beth, on the other hand, hadn’t heard that same little voice of restraint. “Pep rallies!” Beth yelled, clasping her hands together cheerleader style.

Shay glared at her annoying sibling. Her plucking stopped.

“Pep rallies?” Lilith asked, grabbing some potatoes and taking them to Beth, along with a potato peeler. “Get busy, kid.” She handed the potatoes and peeler to an obedient Beth and returned to Shay’s side. “So, you’re a rah-rah girl,” Lilith said to Shay, slapping her hands against her thighs to rid herself of potato dust.

“A rah-rah girl?” Shay asked, holding a feather in midair.

“Yeah,” Lilith said. “Tain’t nothin’ wrong with that. The world needs rah-rah girls.”

Rah-rah girls. The nerve! Shay’s plucking resumed, but with snappier motions. “My schedule hasn’t allowed for any rally time,” Shay said. “I have a job. I have classes. Otherwise, I would have attended some by now.” And then Shay stopped again. “So, what about you? What’s your story?”

“Me? Oh, hell, missy. I’m a feminist just like you!”

“So you’ve attended rallies?” Shay asked, intrigued to the point of halting her plucking.

“Oh, hell no! Didn’t you hear me, child? I said I’m a feminist just like you!” Lilith shooed the air with her hands, chasing away the apparent stupidity floating in the room. “Tweren’t no way I was ever gonna attend a rally back when I was yer age. I’d have ended up just like my sweet older sister, Sally Junior.”

The room erupted with verbalized interest and a plea for Lilith to continue. Lilith wiped her hands on her dress in a wringing fashion and stood in silence long enough for Shay to detect the ticking of the cat-shaped clock on the wall, its tail wagging back and forth with each click. Finally, Lilith’s lost-in-thought expression morphed into one that told of deep-seeded injustice. 


What constitutes activism? Maybe the only distinguishing characteristic is action. And maybe that action comes in many forms, whether using our bodies to demonstrate, our voices to editorialize, our dollars to support causes and make political statements with our buying power, or the stamina to stand our ground with our convictions intact. The key to success is that we act.


Read more about The Seneca Falls Convention here: https://www.history.com/topics/womens-rights/seneca-falls-convention

Buy Songs from the Canary Cage here: https://www.amazon.com/Songs-Canary-Cage-K-L-Benjamin/dp/1532834578/

Image: "Shall women vote?" 1909. LOC is licensed under CC PDM 1.0.

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