Celebrating 60 years of the Women's Charter

1956 Womens protests1PHOTO: Women’s History Network

Sixty years ago 164 women of all races, representing 230 000 women from a range of struggle organisations and trade unions, gathered in Johannesburg to draw up the Women's Charter, one of the first documents to map out a vision for a post-apartheid South Africa.

Sixty years ago 146 women of all races, representing 230 000 women from a range of struggle organisations and trade unions, gathered in Johannesburg to draw up the Women's Charter, one of the first documents to map out a vision for a post-apartheid South Africa.

The National Conference of Women was held in April 1954 as a response to the newly elected National Party government's plans to extend the influx control laws and hated pass books to women. It was the first non-racial gathering of its kind, and saw the formation of the Federation of South African Women, or Fedsaw, which was to play an important role in the struggle for freedom over the following decades.

Fedsaw brought together members of the African National Congress Women's League, as well as African, Indian, coloured and white political organisations in the Congress alliance. The federation was the brainchild of Ray Simons, a leading intellectual, trade union stalwart, and secretary of the South African Communist Party. It was steered by struggle icons such as Helen Joseph, Lilian Ngoyi and Amina Cachalia, who would lead the famous Women's March to the Union Buildings in Pretoria two years later.

The organisation, according to its constitution, aimed "to bring the women of South Africa together to secure full equality of opportunity for all women, regardless of race, colour or creed; to remove social and legal and economic disabilities; to work for the protection of the women and children of our land".

The Women's Charter was adopted on 17 April 1954, setting out the philosophy and vision of the newly formed federation. For the time, its tone was defiantly feminist.

Its preamble read: "We, the women of South Africa, wives and mothers, working women and housewives, African, Indians, European and Coloured, hereby declare our aim of striving for the removal of all laws, regulations, conventions and customs that discriminate against us as women, and that deprive us in any way of our inherent right to the advantages, responsibilities and opportunities that society offers to any one section of the population."

Fedsaw explicitly stated that while the primary struggle in South Africa was for democracy and an end to apartheid, that struggle would not be won without the participation – and liberation – of women. The charter addressed not only the apartheid system but also patriarchal men in the struggle against that system, challenging the "large section of our menfolk" who would not "concede to us the rights and privileges they demand for themselves".

"We shall teach the men that they cannot hope to liberate themselves from the evils of discrimination and prejudice," it continued, "as long as they fail to extend to women complete and unqualified equality in law and practice ... freedom cannot be won for any one section or for the people as a whole as long as we women are kept in bondage."

The more specific demands of the charter were the right of men and women of all races to vote; to have equal job opportunities; to receive equal pay for equal work; to have equal property rights; and to have equality in marriage and childrearing. It also called for paid maternity leave, childcare for working mothers, and compulsory free education for South African children of all races.

The Women's Charter was a ground-breaking document, bringing women's rights into the broader human rights demanded by the liberation movement. Its stipulations were eventually incorporated into the Freedom Charter, the blueprint of the anti-apartheid struggle, adopted at Kliptown in June the following year.

The full text of the charter is below.

The Women's Charter

17 April 1954

Preamble

We, the women of South Africa, wives and mothers, working women and housewives, African, Indians, European and Coloured, hereby declare our aim of striving for the removal of all laws, regulations, conventions and customs that discriminate against us as women, and that deprive us in any way of our inherent right to the advantages, responsibilities and opportunities that society offers to any one section of the population.

A Single Society

We women do not form a society separate from the men. There is only one society, and it is made up of both women and men. As women we share the problems and anxieties of our men, and join hands with them to remove social evils and obstacles to progress.

Test of Civilisation

The level of civilisation which any society has reached can be measured by the degree of freedom that its members enjoy. The status of women is a test of civilisation. Measured by that standard, South Africa must be considered low in the scale of civilised nations.

Women's Lot

We women share with our menfolk the cares and anxieties imposed by poverty and its evils. As wives and mothers, it falls upon us to make small wages stretch a long way. It is we who feel the cries of our children when they are hungry and sick. It is our lot to keep and care for the homes that are too small, broken and dirty to be kept clean. We know the burden of looking after children and land when our husbands are away in the mines, on the farms, and in the towns earning our daily bread.

We know what it is to keep family life going in pondokkies and shanties, or in overcrowded one-room apartments. We know the bitterness of children taken to lawless ways, of daughters becoming unmarried mothers whilst still at school, of boys and girls growing up without education, training or jobs at a living wage.

Poor and Rich

These are evils that need not exist. They exist because the society in which we live is divided into poor and rich, into non-European and European. They exist because there are privileges for the few, discrimination and harsh treatment for the many. We women have stood and will stand shoulder to shoulder with our menfolk in a common struggle against poverty, race and class discrimination, and the evils of the colour bar.

National Liberation

As members of the national liberatory movements and trade unions, in and through our various organisations, we march forward with our men in the struggle for liberation and the defence of the working people. We pledge ourselves to keep high the banner of equality, fraternity and liberty. As women there rests upon us also the burden of removing from our society all the social differences developed in past times between men and women, which have the effect of keeping our sex in a position of inferiority and subordination.

Equality for Women

We resolve to struggle for the removal of laws and customs that deny African women the right to own, inherit or alienate property. We resolve to work for a change in the laws of marriage such as are found amongst our African, Malay and Indian people, which have the effect of placing wives in the position of legal subjection to husbands, and giving husbands the power to dispose of wives' property and earnings, and dictate to them in all matters affecting them and their children.

We recognise that the women are treated as minors by these marriage and property laws because of ancient and revered traditions and customs which had their origin in the antiquity of the people and no doubt served purposes of great value in bygone times.

There was a time in the African society when every woman reaching marriageable stage was assured of a husband, home, land and security.

Then husbands and wives with their children belonged to families and clans that supplied most of their own material needs and were largely self-sufficient. Men and women were partners in a compact and closely integrated family unit.

Women who Labour

Those conditions have gone. The tribal and kinship society to which they belonged has been destroyed as a result of the loss of tribal land, migration of men away from the tribal home, the growth of towns and industries, and the rise of a great body of wage-earners on the farms and in the urban areas, who depend wholly or mainly on wages for a livelihood.

Thousands of African women, like Indians, Coloured and European women, are employed today in factories, homes, offices, shops, on farms, in professions as nurses, teachers and the like. As unmarried women, widows or divorcées they have to fend for themselves, often without the assistance of a male relative. Many of them are responsible not only for their own livelihood but also that of their children.

Large numbers of women today are in fact the sole breadwinners and heads of their families.

Forever Minors

Nevertheless, the laws and practices derived from an earlier and different state of society are still applied to them. They are responsible for their own person and their children. Yet the law seeks to enforce upon them the status of a minor.

Not only are African, Coloured and Indian women denied political rights, but they are also in many parts of the Union denied the same status as men in such matters as the right to enter into contracts, to own and dispose of property, and to exercise guardianship over their children.

Obstacle to Progress

The law has lagged behind the development of society; it no longer corresponds to the actual social and economic position of women. The law has become an obstacle to progress of the women, and therefore a brake on the whole of society.

This intolerable condition would not be allowed to continue were it not for the refusal of a large section of our menfolk to concede to us women the rights and privileges which they demand for themselves.

We shall teach the men that they cannot hope to liberate themselves from the evils of discrimination and prejudice as long as they fail to extend to women complete and unqualified equality in law and in practice.

Need for Education

We also recognise that large numbers of our womenfolk continue to be bound by traditional practices and conventions, and fail to realise that these have become obsolete and a brake on progress. It is our duty and privilege to enlist all women in our struggle for emancipation and to bring to them all realisation of the intimate relationship that exists between their status of inferiority as women and the inferior status to which their people are subjected by discriminatory laws and colour prejudices.

It is our intention to carry out a nation-wide programme of education that will bring home to the men and women of all national groups the realisation that freedom cannot be won for any one section or for the people as a whole as long as we women are kept in bondage.

An Appeal

We women appeal to all progressive organisations, to members of the great national liberatory movements, to the trade unions and working class organisations, to the churches, educational and welfare organisations, to all progressive men and women who have the interests of the people at heart, to join with us in this great and noble endeavour.

Our Aims

We declare the following aims:

This organisation is formed for the purpose of uniting women in common action for the removal of all political, legal, economic and social disabilities. We shall strive for women to obtain:

The right to vote and to be elected to all state bodies, without restriction or discrimination.

The right to full opportunities for employment with equal pay and possibilities of promotion in all spheres of work.

Equal rights with men in relation to property, marriage and children, and for the removal of all laws and customs that deny women such equal rights.

For the development of every child through free compulsory education for all; for the protection of mother and child through maternity homes, welfare clinics, crèches and nursery schools, in countryside and towns; through proper homes for all, and through the provision of water, light, transport, sanitation, and other amenities of modern civilisation.

For the removal of all laws that restrict free movement, that prevent or hinder the right of free association and activity in democratic organisations, and the right to participate in the work of these organisations.

To build and strengthen women's sections in the national liberatory movements, the organisation of women in trade unions, and through the peoples' varied organisation.

To cooperate with all other organisations that have similar aims in South Africa as well as throughout the world.

To strive for permanent peace throughout the world.