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

What do women want? In particular, what did the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s want? Feminism changed many women's lives and created new worlds of possibility 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. Here are some specific feminist movement goals from the “second wave” of feminism.

edited and with additional content by Jone Johnson Lewis

  • Abortion rights on demand
    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 her reproductive status without interference by the state or paternalistic medical professionals.
  • "De-Sexing the English Language"
    Feminists helped spark debate over assumptions embedded in our language that reflect the assumption 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.
  • Education
    Many women went to college and worked professionally in the early 20th century, but the mid-20th century myth of the middle-class suburban housewife 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 were to become, and be seen as, "fully" equal.  And within education, access by women to all programs, including sports 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 (such as having women on juries on an equal basis to men).  Feminists questioned the long tradition of "protective legislation" for women which often ended up sidelining women from being hired, promoted, or treated fairly.
  • Promoting political participation
    The League of Women Voters had existed since just after women won the vote, and the LWV had supported educating women (and men) in informed voting, and had done some work in promoting women as candidates.  In the 1960s and 1970s, other organizations were created and the LWV 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 nuclear family households
    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.  Research showed that even 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.
  • “I Want a Wife”
    No, this essay from the first issue of Ms. magazine did not mean that every woman literally wanted a wife, but it did suggest that any adult would love to have someone to play the “housewife” role as it had been defined.
  • Supporting women as parents
    While feminism reexamined 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.
  • Representation in Popular Culture
    Feminists critiqued the presence (or non-presence) 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 Wonder Woman comics saw a resurgence and widened audience.  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 in Other Movements
    An example: 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 (CLUW) 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.