Even in high school, Janet Garrard-Willis was comfortable with the label "feminist." She felt loved and appreciated by the leaders in her Port Angeles, Wash., Mormon ward, who seemed to relish her spunkiness and pushed her toward academic success.
So she was surprised to be called the "anti-Christ" for such outspokenness in her first week at Brigham Young University in 1991.
And more recently, the affable, witty writing instructor was appalled to hear a BYU student say Mormon feminists are a humorless lot. Outraged by the suggestion, Garrard-Willis set out to disprove it by Googling the words "Mormon, feminist, humor."
Up popped "The Poop Chronicles," Lisa Butterworth's hilarious description of her toddler's artistry with excrement. The mini-essays were posted on a Web site Butterworth launched in 2004, headlined "Feminist Mormon Housewives - Angry Activists With Diapers to Change www.feministmormonhousewives.org
Soon Garrard-Willis was furiously reading discussions about everything from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' all-male priesthood and the continuing debates about polygamy to amusing episodes from the all-female Relief Society.
She felt attached to the women who shared searing tales of sexual abuse, spiritual agony or intellectual confusion. She found herself drawn into the debates, posting comments of her own about compassion, war and peace, infertility, breast-feeding among African Mormon women, Botoxing her bladder and the three most-despised household chores.
"[The Web site] is a safe place to be feminist and faithful, without assuming the two are mutually exclusive," Garrard-Willis says as she cuddles Oliver Finn, her 4-month-old son. "So many women tell us they have the feeling they don't fit in their wards [Mormon congregations]."
Now Garrard-Willis is one of the site's permanent bloggers and Feminist Mormon Housewives continues to attract readers from across the country, ranging from orthodox Mormons to questioners and even some disaffected members. The discussions often begin with a personal anecdote and can become intense, though always respectful of differences.
Feminist Mormon Housewives has been featured in The New York Times, Newsweek, National Public Radio and even Bust, a magazine for Third Wave feminism.
"If the personal is in any way political, these writings constitute a veritable revolution," writes Kristine Haglund, one of Feminist Mormon Housewives' early contributors who is guest editing a special women's edition of Sunstone, an independent Mormon magazine that should be available by the end of the month.
"Hundreds of Mormon women, able to easily publish their thoughts via the Internet, are talking, arguing, connecting, sharing their thoughts and the details of their lives."
Blogging provides an outlet so these women "can bite their tongues in Relief Society," Haglund says.
Even the conservative "Mormon Mommy blogs," which avoid hot topics and focus exclusively on motherhood and raising children, she says, reflect feminism. "They take their lives seriously," Haglund says.
"They write with wit and intelligence and expect people to respect that. Even women who eschew the label are enjoying the legacy of '70s feminism."
Not surprisingly, the media attention also has attracted critics. LDS Institute of Religion Director Val Clarke criticized Butterworth's comments in the Bust article.
"Not once did [they] ask what was best for the children," he was quoted as saying in Idaho State University's student paper.
"He said the women had the attitude of 'I am the most important thing in the world,' " the story noted.
Butterworth rejects such dismissals of feminism. She grew up in a conservative Mormon family in southern Utah. By her 19th birthday, she had questions about politics and faith. She worried about racism and civil rights and women's issues. She became a Democrat and continued to go to church. But there was no one to talk to about the issues she found all around her.
Butterworth married, moved to Boise and had children while questions roiled inside her brain.
It all came to a head during the 2004 elections.She wondered if there were any Mormons who opposed George Bush or who thought about politics the way she did. She discovered, to her relief, a post about liberal Mormons on timesandseasons.org. She was hooked.
For the next few months, Butterworth engaged often there but soon felt the bloggers - mostly men - were not talking about things that interested her: women talk. So Butterworth decided to launch her own blog. She knew it should include the words "feminist" and "Mormon," but that didn't say enough.
So what else was she? A housewife. Voilà!
The site was born, and it fit her sense of paradox, and it might make people blink. "It just clicked," she says.
"It was the oxymoron that is my life." She enlisted her Democrat niece-in-law and they were off. Before they knew it, women were signing on from all over the country, chatting and challenging and chewing over experiences. She poured out all the issues that had raged in her head for so long. She posted something online nearly every day.
"I call it my 'mind vomit,' " she says with a laugh.
"My mind was so full, I had nowhere to put it. I had never been able to have a deep conversation with someone without it devolving into tensions because the format or person was wrong. I needed to write it all out and get others to talk to me."
With rare exception, Feminist Mormon Housewives has been able to address extremely divisive issues, even abortion, with kindness and respect, she says. On Thursday, the site featured an online poll that asked whether readers would accept or decline the LDS priesthood if it were offered. The vast majority said they would accept.
It wasn't the first time Feminist Mormon Housewives has asked about the priesthood, and it likely won't be the last. Butterworth feels completely drained, having discussed at length the issues that once consumed her. But new people continue to show up at the blog, and for them, the conversation is just starting.
"I've had people say that it's helped them stay in church, leave the church peacefully, make peace with certain topics and even join the church," she says. "Apparently. this project is important to people. I have to keep doing it."