PROVO — As women walked through the doors of Lauren VanCott Wenn’s home, they found almost every wall covered in color.
Paint swatches coated the walls. Art donated by local artists hung for sale, with the proceeds going to a family who just lost their young son. And name tags and goodie bags with notes like “I am kind” and “I am loved” lined the entryway.
Balloons, banners and streamers all brightened the space in which women, many of whom were complete strangers, came together with one purpose: to create community. That was also the theme for the Aug. 29 event — the eighth "girls night out" put on by Featured Female, a group with the purpose of bringing women together.
No woman stood by herself. All of them chatted and ate and wrote notes to the grieving family as they listened to the live musical performances of some of the other women. Those who came as strangers left with friends, no matter their background, religion, race, ethnicity, economic status, orientation or any other potentially divisive characteristic.
Wenn, the founder of Featured Female, has easily found friends her whole life with her lively personality. But when she moved into a new neighborhood as a newlywed, she immediately felt isolated while going through one of the hardest years of her life.
“There was just a lurking loneliness,” Wenn, a full-time realtor, recalled. She pulled back into a shell, feeling that loneliness until she decided she needed to take action.
Wenn posted on her Instagram account inviting any woman to a girls night featuring a “thank you” card writing activity. There was no RSVP and no qualifications. Anyone was welcome. And that was how Featured Female began.
This group has shown me the power of women supporting each other instead of competing or comparing.
–Aubrey Hartshorn, videographer
That first night opened her eyes when 30 very different women from very different places trickled in and began bonding. Some were childhood friends, some former clients or coworkers, some old neighbors, and some were complete strangers who saw her post and showed up.
One of these attendees was hairstylist and stay-at-home mom Ruth Muhlstein, who had also just moved into a new neighborhood and felt similar loneliness.
Muhlstein wasn’t sure about showing up for the event because she sometimes has a hard time connecting with people her age, and showing up to an event full of strangers sounded daunting. She felt awkward at first, but the more time she spent there, the easier it got.
Wenn admits that, at first, she was thinking about filling her need for connection. But looking around at all of the friendships being formed, she knew that this was helping the other women just as much.
“In that moment, I saw what the group could become,” she said. It came fully formed into her head — a space and an environment where women could just come to free events and feel safe and welcome.
This idea became Featured Female, a group that features the extraordinary good in regular people by hosting an open, monthly girls night out, a podcast, and videos covering hard topics like infertility and child loss.
In February, Wenn hosted a "Galentine’s party." Then there was an "80s night" in March, a garden party in April, a "fiesta" in May, an "unbirthday" party in June, a picnic in July, and an art night in August. At each event, more women showed up until the parties could be considered crowded in the best way possible.
A Featured Female chapter is opening in Logan, and Wenn would like to see this spread to wherever a woman wants to host in her city, as long as it continues to remain free. This is an important point for Wenn because she wants all women to be able to attend, regardless of their budget or economic status.
She has been paying for Featured Female out of her own pocket, but she uses T-shirt sales and some minimal sponsorship from small companies her friends own to help cover some of the costs. There is also a volunteer-based party prep committee. All of the media the group has created is donated by Wenn and her friends, including the podcast and a series of videos they call the Empathy Projects.
The Empathy Project
The idea for the Empathy Project videos stemmed from the safe environment created through Featured Female, which led to women confiding in each other about some of the issues that they were working through.
Wenn wanted to create a resource to bring these women together and find solace in the community, so she reached out to Aubrey Hartshorn, who has a videography business with her husband, Joseph.
When Wenn and the wife-and-husband team were setting up for the first video on infertility and child loss, they weren’t quite sure what to expect. As the videographers were shooting each woman’s story individually, a group formed off-screen.
Strangers came together in that unplanned circle and shared their stories and their grief. The women locked arms in a giant circular hug as they spoke.
Muhlstein was among these women. After she lost her son, the last thing she wanted to do was go to a support group or talk about it openly, but she chose to come meet a group of strangers and listen and share anyway. And she was irreversibly changed by the experience.
“I was hearing some of the same things I thought, word for word, coming out of somebody else’s mouth,” Muhlstein said. “We had different stories, but we had a heartache we all shared. It felt like there’s a part of me opened for good.”
For the second video, Wenn had an open-ended prompt reading: “I know what it feels like to…” on Featured Female's Instagram story. Answers came flooding in — both positive and negative — from knowing what it’s like to experience sexual abuse to knowing what it feels like to get a master’s degree.
“I could see my friends sending in these things, and I didn’t know they were struggling,” Wenn said. “If there’s anything I’ve learned through these videos, it’s that you can meet a stranger and immediately have empathy for them.”
There were so many responses that the videographers couldn't fit them all into he video, Aubrey Hartshorn said.
“This group has shown me the power of women supporting each other instead of competing or comparing,” she said.
Growth in size and in mission
As the group has grown in size with its projects and events, it has also grown in its mission, Hartshorn explained.
And the regulars like Muhlstein, who hasn’t missed an event yet, keep coming back.
“I come because I know I’m going to find a friend there,” she said.
Featured Female does not pretend to be revolutionary or unique in its mission, but the members are definitely enthusiastic and energetic about what they have created and are working on expanding.
“We’re not sharing anything new; we’re just trying to be loud about it,” Wenn said.
Jenny Rollins is a freelance journalist based in Utah. She has a B.A. from Brigham Young University and an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.