Suppose we have a college-educated 24 year-old secular White woman we will call Katie in front of us. Katie passionately believes that women and men should have equal rights and equal opportunities under the law. That is, she supports gender equality and detests efforts she perceives as getting in its way (e.g., Republican opposition to reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act and efforts to restrict reproductive rights, the poor treatment of women in many Muslim countries). Not surprisingly, Katie describes herself as a feminist.
After a lengthy conversation with Katie about her views, you come away feeling surprised by much of what she says. She does not accept patriarchy theory, does not believe that there is any sort of "rape culture" in the U.S., questions how large the wage gap would be if proper statistical controls were utilized, and is highly critical of many examples of contemporary feminist activism (e.g., attempts to "ban bossy," publicly shaming men for "manspreading," the #GiveMoneyToWomen phenomenon). She also tells you that she was appalled by much of the behavior of the contemporary social justice warriors involved in anti-GamerGate and Atheism+. Their behavior and their embrace of perpetual victimhood, according to Katie, has turned people away from the pursuit of gender equality and shut down valuable social discourse.
So here's the question: Is Katie a feminist? Based on what little you have been told about her, is she a feminist? She identifies herself as a feminist, but is she really a feminist?
For those who genuinely believe that feminism is nothing more than the belief in the equality of women, Katie is undeniably a feminist. Every one of the feminists who frequently shares the "feminism is the radical notion that women are people" meme would appear to be in a position where they must recognize Katie as a feminist or expose themselves to charges of hypocrisy. If they really believe that this is all that feminism means, how could they possibly deny that Katie is a feminist? And yet, I would guess that many contemporary feminists would not be comfortable calling Katie a feminist because they regard feminism as something more than gender equality, even if some are reluctant to admit it.
How might this be tested? Suppose we were to transcribe an interview with Katie in which she articulated her views much more clearly and thoroughly than I did above. It would be apparent that she supported gender equality, but it would be equally apparent that she rejected much of the rest of what many contemporary feminists claim to believe. We could then present the transcript to a large sample of self-identified feminist activists recruited from social media. We'd have them review it and answer a few questions about Katie to make sure they had actually read it. Then we would ask whether they considered her a feminist. My hypothesis is that many would not.
Ideally, we'd want a more complex methodology. We'd have multiple transcripts in which only certain portions differed, and our participants would be randomly assigned to the various transcript conditions. Perhaps we'd have one like I've already described and another where "Katie" was a gung-ho supporter of both gender equality and all the other things which I said she actually opposes. You get the idea.
So what? Well, if we found that the majority of our sample denied Katie's feminism, this would seem to cast serious doubt on the sincerity of those who insist that "feminism is the radical notion that women are people." If it turned out that a majority of our sample denied Katie's feminism even though she vehemently believes not only that women are people but that gender equality is a goal worth pursuing, it would seem clear that there really is more to being a feminist than pursuing gender equality. Maybe we'd then be able to have more productive conversations about feminism.