20 000 women march to the Union Buildings in protest of Pass Laws

Women's march

Thursday, 9 August 1956

In one of the largest demonstrations staged in this country's history, 20 000 women of all races marched to Pretoria's Union Buildings on 9 August 1956, to present a petition against the carrying of passes by women to the prime minister, J G Strijdom.

This was the famous Women's march celebrated as Women's Day on 9 August each year.  The march against the pass laws was organised by the Federation of South African Women (FSAW or FEDSAW). The Federation famously challenged the idea that 'a woman's place is in the kitchen', declaring it instead to be 'everywhere'. Although Prime Minister J.G. Strijdom was not at the Union Buildings to accept the petition, the women of South Africa sent a public message that they would not be intimidated and silenced by unjust laws. After the petition was handed over to the secretary of the prime minister, the women sang a freedom song: Wathint` abafazi, Strijdom!

Since then, the phrase 'wathint' abafazi, wathint' imbokodo' (You Strike a Woman, You Strike a Rock) has come to represent the courage and strength of South African women. As a group that has been marginalised, they rose to question the barrier and fought for their emancipation and that of their families. The first National Women's Day was celebrated in 1995 and since then annual celebrations take place throughout the country.

Visit our feature 'History of Women's struggle in South Africa' for further information about South African Women's Day.

• South African History Online, 'The Women's Struggle in South Africa' , [online], Available at: www.sahistory.org.za [Accessed:  3 August 2010]
•  Unknown (2005). Pretoria 1855-2005: Chronologie 1798-1935, Bylaag tot Rekord.
•  Evans A.B., 'Women's Anti-Pass Law Campaigns in South Africa' [online] Available at: africanhistory.about.com  [Accessed: 8 August 2013]

Last updated : 09-Aug-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 16-Mar-2011