The Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW or FSAW) was launched on 17 April 1954 in Johannesburg as the first attempt to establish a broad-based women’s organisation. This was the brainchild of Ray Simons who drew in others such as Helen Joseph, Lillian Ngoyi and Amina Cachalia who formed the steering committee for the organisation. One hundred and forty-six delegates, representing 230,000 women from all parts of South Africa, attended the founding conference and pledged their support for the general campaigns of the Congress Alliance. Among the African leaders of the Federation, a large number were trade unionists, primarily from the clothing, textile, and food and canning industries. Some were teachers and nurses, members of the small African professional class. Since fewer than one percent of African-working women were engaged in production work in the 1950s, the trade unionists, like the nurses and teachers, represented but a fraction of all adult African women. The involvement of the trade unionists proved to be critical, however. They contributed invaluable organisational skills and mobilising techniques to the women`s struggle.
Although the Federation of South African Women included some individual members, it was primarily composed of affiliated women`s groups, African, Indian, "Coloured" and white political organisations, and trade unions. According to its constitution, the objectives of the Federation were 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, legal and economic disabilities; to work for the protection of the women and children.
The "Women`s Charter", written at the first conference, called for the enfranchisement of men and women of all races; equality of opportunity in employment; equal pay for equal work; equal rights in relation to property, marriage and children; and the removal of all laws and customs that denied women such equality. The Charter further demanded paid maternity leave, childcare for working mothers, and free and compulsory education for all South African children.
Although the Federation acknowledged that the primary task at hand was the struggle for national liberation, it warned that the struggle would not be won without the full participation of women. Applying a distorted version of "tribal" law, which had governed pre-industrial African society, South African courts continued to regard African women as perpetual minors under the permanent tutelage of their male guardians. Women`s property rights were severely limited and control over their own earnings minimal. The authors of the "Women`s Charter" did not hesitate to deal with these issues. According to the Charter, laws governing African marriage and property relations which had "lagged behind the development of society no longer correspond to the actual social and economic position of women". As a result, "the law has become an obstacle to the progress of the women, and therefore, a brake on the whole of society". The blame for "this intolerable condition" rested in part with "a large section of our menfolk" who refuse "to concede to us women the rights and privileges which they demand for themselves". The Charter concluded that women 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 practice. Further, it stated that freedom cannot be won for any one section or for the people as a whole as long as women are kept in bondage. The demands laid out in the "Women`s Charter" were ultimately incorporated into the "Freedom Charter", adopted by the Congress of the People in Kliptown on June 25-26, 1955.
A major task of the Federation in succeeding years was the organisation of massive protests against the extension of pass laws to women. Together with the ANC Women`s League, the Federation organised scores of demonstrations outside Government offices in towns and cities around the country. The first national protest took place on October 27, 1955, when 2,000 women of all races marched on the Union Buildings in Pretoria, planning to meet with the Cabinet ministers responsible for the administration of apartheid laws. Ida Mntwana led the march and the marchers were mainly African women form the Johannesburg region. The Minister of Native Affairs, Dr. Verwoerd, under whose jurisdiction the pass laws fell, pointedly refused to receive a multiracial delegation. On August 9, 1956, 20,000 women from all parts of South Africa staged a second march on the Union Buildings. Prime Minister Strijdom, who had been notified of the women`s mission, was not there to receive them. This gathering of women was unprecedented in attracting one of the largest crowds ever to gather at the Union Buildings. The success of the demonstration challenged the stereotypes about women and their lack of political drive. Further, it enhanced the prestige of FEDSAW within the Congress Alliance and as a result, 9 August was declared Women’s Day to commemorate the achievement. The day is still celebrated as such at present and has also been declared a public holiday.
In December 1956, 156 leaders of the Congress Alliance were rounded up and detained, this led to the Treason Trial that went on for four and a half years. During the Treason Trial, FEDSAW women organised support for the treason trialists and their families. However, the organisation suffered along with the Alliance as women such as Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Annie Silinga and Francis Baard were detained for plotting to overthrow the government.