Goals of the Feminist Movement

What Did Feminists Want?

Bus Conductors in London Demand Equal Opportunity
Bus Conductors in London Demand Equal Opportunity, December 1968.

Fred Mott / Evening Standard / Getty Images

Feminism changed women's lives and created new worlds of possibilities for education, empowerment, working women, feminist art, and feminist theory. For some, the goals of the feminist movement were simple: let women have freedom, equal opportunity, and control over their lives. For others, though, the goals were more abstract or complex.

Scholars and historians often divide the feminist movement into three "waves." First-wave feminism, rooted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is closely related to the women's suffrage movement, as it focused primarily on legal inequalities. In contrast, second-wave feminism was mainly active in the 1960s and 70s and focused on inequalities embedded in social norms more than laws. Here are some specific feminist movement goals from the “second wave” of feminism.

Rethinking Society With Feminist Theory

This was accomplished by, among other disciplines, women’s studies, feminist literary criticism, gynocriticism, socialist feminism, and the feminist art movement. Looking through a feminist lens at history, politics, culture, and economics, feminists developed insights into just about every intellectual discipline. To this day, the fields of women's studies and gender studies are major presences in academia and in social criticism.

Abortion Rights

The call for “abortion on demand” is often misunderstood. Leaders of the women’s liberation movement were clear that women should have reproductive freedom and safe access to legal abortion, making the choice for their reproductive status without interference by the state or paternalistic medical professionals. Second-wave feminism led to the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, which legalized abortion in most circumstances.

De-Sexing the English Language

Feminists helped spark debate over assumptions embedded in the English language that reflect the notion of a male-dominated patriarchal society. Language was often centered around males, assuming that humanity was male and women were exceptions. Use neutral pronouns? Identify words with gender bias? Invent new words? Many solutions were tried, and the debate continues into the 21st century.


Many women went to college and worked professionally in the early 20th century, but the mid-20th century ideal of the middle-class suburban housewife and the nuclear family downplayed the importance of women’s education. Feminists knew that girls and women must be encouraged to seek an education, and not just as “something to fall back on,” if they are to become, and be seen as, "fully" equal. And within education, access by women to all programs, including sports programs, was a major goal. In 1972, Title IX forbade gender discrimination in education-related programs that received federal funding (such as school athletic programs).

Equality Legislation

Feminists worked for the Equal Rights Amendment, the Equal Pay Act, the addition of sex discrimination to the Civil Rights Act, and other laws that would guarantee equality. Feminists advocated for a variety of laws and interpretations of existing laws to remove impediments to women's professional and economic achievements, or full exercise of citizenship rights. Feminists questioned the long tradition of "protective legislation" for women, which often sidelined women from being hired, promoted, or treated fairly.

Promoting Political Participation

The League of Women Voters, which has existed since just after women won the vote, has supported educating women (and men) in informed voting and worked to promote women as candidates. In the 1960s and 1970s, other organizations were created and the league extended its mission to promote even more participation in the political process by women including by recruiting, training, and financially supporting women candidates.

Rethinking Women's Roles in the Home

Although not all feminists called for collective mothering or went so far as to urge “seizing the means of reproduction,” as Shulamith Firestone wrote in "The Dialectic of Sex," it was clear that women should not have to bear the sole responsibility for raising children. Roles also included who does the housework. Often, full-time working wives did the majority of housework, and various individuals and theorists proposed ways of changing the proportion of who did which household chores, and who held responsibility for those chores as well.

An essay from the first issue of Ms. magazine, called "I Want a Wife," did not mean that every woman literally wanted a wife. It did suggest that any adult would love to have someone to play the “housewife” role as it had been defined: the caretaker and the one who runs things behind-the-scenes.

And while feminism re-examined the maternal role expected of women, feminism also worked to support women when they were the primary caretaker of children or the primary custodial parent. Feminists worked for family leave, employment rights through pregnancy and childbirth including covering pregnancy and newborn medical expenses through health insurance, child care, and reform in marriage and divorce laws.

Popular Culture

Feminists critiqued the presence (or nonpresence) of women in popular culture, and popular culture expanded the roles which women held. Television shows gradually added women in more central and less stereotyped roles, including some shows featuring single women who wanted more than just to "find a man." Movies also expanded roles, and female-driven comics saw a resurgence and widened audience, with "Wonder Woman" leading the way. Traditional women's magazines fell under critique, with the result of both some change in how women were depicted there and specialty magazines like Working Woman and Ms. Magazine created to meet the new market demands—and to reshape the market.

Expanding the Voice of Women

Women had often been shut out of unions or relegated to a ladies auxiliary through much of the 20th century. As the feminist movement gained momentum, pressure on the union movement to represent more jobs that were "pink collar" jobs (mostly held by women) increased. Organizations like Women Employed were created for representing women in offices where unions were not strong. And the Coalition of Labor Union Women was created to help women in leadership roles within unions develop solidarity and support in getting the union movement to be more inclusive of women, both among those represented, and in leadership.


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Napikoski, Linda. "Goals of the Feminist Movement." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/goals-of-the-feminist-movement-3528961. Napikoski, Linda. (2023, April 5). Goals of the Feminist Movement. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/goals-of-the-feminist-movement-3528961 Napikoski, Linda. "Goals of the Feminist Movement." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/goals-of-the-feminist-movement-3528961 (accessed June 7, 2023).