by Kim Llerena, Ecumenical Women photographer

As a born-again feminist, I have recently seen the light. I am a repentant rejecter of ignorance being bliss, apologetic for my past indiscretions. I’m almost rushing out to buy that fun “this is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt…but that’s my lunch money for tomorrow.

In all seriousness, I only recently accepted that I can be a feminist and call myself a feminist without relinquishing completely the reasons I denied myself the label for so long. I was for many years a bit – gasp – ignorant even in my early twenties to both the meaning and value of feminism.

The biggest obstacle to me accepting feminism into my life wasn’t necessarily that I associated it with people who get really offended over the semantics of the word “mankind” (though really, those people just need to get over it and embrace etymology into their life). My problem was with any feminist perspective that purported that because we were women, we were all in some way oppressed. I had never once found myself at a disadvantage due to my sex or my gender, and I found it annoying whenever a privileged, white, female friend of mine would suggest that they had.

In general, mine was a poorly reasoned, superficial, and defensive position that I assumed whenever a staunchly feminist friend took the mic, like a cat flexing the nape of his neck right before he hissed. Clearly, my viewpoints, valid though they may have been within my own context, were oversimplified because of a lack of knowledge of what the women’s movement truly means for all women and of what we are still fighting for in other parts of the world.

At the Ecumenical Women conference’s opening day, I got to hear stories from women from around the world – women expected to care for dying family members because “wife” will always equal “caregiver,” no matter what the relationship becomes; women who never entertained the thought of deaconship because they knew their church wouldn’t either; women who were fighting simply for inclusive, unbiased language in government policy recommendations. Though I wasn’t officially participating in the conference, just documenting it, I listened and heard accounts of repression and oppression from across oceans, counterparts to my life story and ones like it.

I was struck by my own reaction, by how much hearing international women share personal experiences with a common set of goals in mind helped guide me away from my formerly unilateral approach to thinking about feminism. There are so many complex issues at play when you talk about human rights, because the human experience is universal while individually we experience a very small portion of its range. There is no way I can form opinions on a global issue that affects half the world’s population by drawing from solely my own life. I had always silently lauded my open-mindedness, and here I was resenting my blatant ignorance. Luckily there are people in the world who come together for the sole purpose of finding common ground on a segregated planet. I applaud the work that the women who attend this conference seek to do for their fellow female.

Maybe one day I will forgo lunch for that t-shirt after all. Feminism is so hot right now.

Allow me to at least clarify my current position. Above all, I believe that women should have, fight for, demand, expect, work towards, lobby for, relentlessly pursue, and celebrate having the same rights as men. I never didn’t think this or want it or expect my government to deliver it. What I did was take it for granted, expect that we had already gotten what we wanted, and indulge in a closed-minded and lazy view of the world. I viewed everything from behind the rose-colored glasses of a privileged product of suburbia. My former aversion to the feminism embraced by my friends and by women around me stemmed directly from a personal lack of struggle, and a lack of insight about the broader human experience. It’s still true that I myself have never felt disadvantaged because I am a woman – then again, I came from a background where I pretty much got what a wanted and worked hard only because, fortunately, I was born and raised to be diligent.

I understand now that it doesn’t help to question why my friends’ passion for women’s rights is a personal issue for them, because everyone should be as vocal as possible about the issues that are urgent and crucial to them. It is indeed the only way American women have achieved what we have over the past 200 years and the only way that women in other countries will achieve their own feminist success stories in the future.

And yes, I still believe that we need to become comfortable with the fact that people can live happily on different levels of intelligence, success, status, and wealth. But I also know that “equality” is achieved only when everyone is given the (deserved and inalienable) rights and opportunities and tools with which to live and succeed. I know my generation will live to see that kind of equality, because there are women out there willing to wear it written across their chest.