I grew up thinking Feminism was a vile word. It was a word that elicited much eye rolling and nauseated groaning noises when mentioned. I grew up thinking it meant lots of leg hair, tons of anger, and deep hatred toward anyone who happened to possess a penis. I shaved, didn’t feel particularly angry (at least back then…oh to be young again), and I certainly did not hate men. For the record, there is nothing wrong with some leg hair and rage, ladies…I just wasn’t sure where I belonged, or if I even wanted to based on the image so generously painted for me. I also had this nagging feeling that told me the world can do better by us. I wasn’t sure how to quite reconcile my ideas about what it looked like to practice feminism with my evolving beliefs about femininity and my place in society.

One day, though, it dawned on me that perhaps those messages I got were actually designed specifically to keep curious outsiders like me just beyond reach for any holy mischief to be made. The smaller the understanding of feminism, the more people would feel excluded and likely leave well enough alone. Much better for the status quo to keep thriving unchecked.

Josh Cody is a good man. An amazing husband and partner this last decade. I would absolutely credit my journey toward feminism to his persistency in holding me to a higher and higher standard for myself. He has sat with me in a lot of self-loathing, a lot of self-doubt, and helped unpack a TON of baggage I carried throughout my 20’s due to the low view I held toward women. “Women are manipulators”, so it was likely that anything bad that happened to me was brought on by my own doing. “Women use their sexuality to coerce men”, therefore any unwanted attention I received was because of something I did or said. “Women aren’t as capable as men”, so why would I even bother finishing my degree? “Women don’t have important things to say”, therefore I should feel shame when I had the urge to express an opinion. I worked as an intern at a Methodist church in college when I heard my first female pastor preach. It honestly sounded…unnatural to me. I didn’t like it. I’m heartbroken to admit that I tuned her out that day. Wrote her off. What could have been a beautiful and important moment for me was stolen by my internalized message that a woman’s value can only be found behind the scenes, not from a stage or pulpit. Something deep within me couldn’t trust a woman who leads, and I could certainly never become a leader myself.

When we dated, Josh would push back on this thought pattern, but it wasn’t until we got married that he began his 10-year-long operation to poke as many holes in the story I told myself as he possibly could. As the holes were made, a space was growing for something else to exist. I began to see myself as good. I began to see other women as good.

My keen sense of intuition that I used to call misleading? Good.

My brain that lives inside my head that can think thoughts that are unique to me? Good.

My desire to achieve things beyond the confines of the home (which I also happen to love)? Good.

The way I get to express myself through the clothes I wear, the words I say, and the things I write? Good.

This was earth-shattering. Nothing has quite changed the landscape of my existence in the world like giving myself the permission to exist. I don’t mean to inhabit a room, but to take up space. To walk confidently toward another human on the sidewalk in our neighborhood without stepping aside and getting my feet muddy in an attempt move out of their way. To have the audacity to think that maybe something that lies inside the people I admire also lives inside of me. This thought alone was a revelation. I started to own this work and practice this skill of existing as much as I could.

As I allowed myself to be discovered for the first time, I looked around and noticed other women around me. I have yet to stop noticing them. I see their resilience and their grit. I see the way they mother tenderly and notice injustices in the world with agonizing empathy. I see them on the journey I am on, learning to trust their gut and their bodies, reclaiming what it means to be female. I see the balancing act they engage in, appearing to hold the entire world together with nothing more than a day-planner and a cup of coffee. We are complicated and beautiful and strong, and I love us.

The women in my life are heroic. My sister started a business, is the hardest working person I know, and still drops everything when I call to make sure the people in her life feel seen and loved.

My friend Becky runs a non-profit feeding some of the most underserved people in her state. She works absolutely grueling hours to make sure that every single person who comes through the doors is treated with dignity, and given a moment to feel beloved. She is a manager, a teacher, an advocate, an ally, and a bridge-builder in her community. She is a wife and an incredible mother. This is women’s work.

My friend Katie is a web developer walking into an office every day full of men. She constantly teaches me what it looks like to choose to believe you belong in a space despite what messages you may receive to try to convince you otherwise. She empowers others without demeaning herself. She unapologetically practices self-care through keeping healthy boundaries. I don’t think I knew what that looked like before I met her, and it’s changed my life.

My friend Gabby  a mom of 2 and a nurse staying home to raise her babies, who she birthed naturally. Like at her births, she brings her full self to that role every single day, an example for her daughter of the power a woman has when she’s fully alive and her son how to live into his capacity for both tenderness and strength. At this moment she’s probably dreaming of the business she’s going to start, nursing her infant, and whipping up the most incredibly delicious vegan curry you’ve ever tasted for her family.

I am in awe of what women do.

I could go on for days.

I don’t simply esteem the women in my life, I see them as absolutely vital to my well-being every moment of every day. One important spiritual practice for me has been to sit with and meditate on the qualities I see in the women around me. Their strength reminds me that I am also strong. Their gifts remind me that I am gifted. Their patience toward their friends and children reminds me that I am capable of creating peace. Their ambitions remind me that I too am allowed to strive and hustle and accomplish even if it means sacrificing in another area of my life or (gasp) at the expense of Josh sometimes. The sermons they preach remind me how important it is to feel represented, and how valuable a women’s voice is in leading all sorts of communities. I don’t just theoretically value the voice and experience of women. I need them. They are essential. Those voices are also essential to the health and wellbeing of every society which ever existed.

I love claiming feminism because I love proclaiming the freedom I found in owning the magnitude of my own value. I belong to no one. I don’t have to be composed or motherly or attractive or articulate or quiet or anything else to be worth someone’s time. I am created in God’s image. She is for me, not against me. I can exist in this world without apologizing or needing an excuse to be here.

This journey has brought me joy. It has brought me community. It has strengthened my marriage and my relationship with my Creator. I believe I am a better mother when I’m able to bring all of me to that role each day. I am so imperfect and so grateful to get to show up to my place in this story in all my imperfect glory. These days, nothing thrills me more than getting to vote for, listen to, be preached at, read, and study women who are like me in so many ways: Flawed, shedding pounds of cultural expectation, vulnerable, and showing up to do the work anyway. I have so far to go to keep living into that freedom, and we all have so far to go in reversing the damage being done to girls. I would give anything for those years back that I spent in the dark, lonely place of self-suppression.

I recently returned from a faith conference where I had the privilege of hearing from twelve incredible women speaking power and truth into my life. I held to every single word they spoke over my, drinking in their wisdom like a desert wanderer tasting water for the first time in years. I heard my story as they told theirs. I felt so challenged and seen and fortunate to get to learn from their experiences. The men in attendance agreed. Women belong in our pulpits and boards and theology books and supreme courts and public offices not for representation’s sake, but because of the actual value we provide in each of these spaces. I belong. We belong. I will keep fighting to believe that today and every day until it is cemented into my bones and feels as natural to me as breathing.