The ANC when it was formed in 1912, did not accept women as members. There was no broad women`s organisation during the first decades of the ANC`s existance.
In 1931 the Bantu Women`s League (BWL) was recognised as the women`s branch of the ANC. Its first president was Charlotte Maxeke. The BWL was mostly involved in passive resistance and concentrated on the fight against passes for black women.
In 1943 women were formally admitted as ANC members. The ANCWL was formed in 1948. In spite of these organisational changes, women were still discriminated against by ANC mill discriminated against by ANC men who located politics in a male environment. Women were used mainly for catering and mobilisation.
The issues of passes, Bantu education and beer halls dominated the activities of the women in the 1950s. Key activities were the Defiance Campaign of 1952 which confronted Verwoerd with the Women`s Charter, and the mass demonstrations of August 9 1956 (which became Women`s Day).
Organisationally, the Federation of South African Women, formed in 1954 as an umbrella body, helped the ANCWL`s activities to spread. It was the first indication that the ANCWL wanted to be involved in improving the lot of women nationally, and not only within their own organisation. Federation brought together from the ANCWL, Coloured People`s Organisation, Transvaal and Natal Indian Congress of Democrats.
The impact of women`s activities led the male leadership to recognise the potential of the women`s struggle, Thus started the integration of women into ANC structures. In 1956 ANCWL President Lilian Ngoyi was elected the first women to join the ANC NEC.
The banning of the ANC and ANCWL in 1960 disrupted the process of integration of women into the central leadership circle. Regional organisers became important since they directed and managed the resistance on the ground.
Famous activists of the day included Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Dorothy Nyembe, Sophie du Bruyn, Ray Alexander and Rayn, Ray Alexander and Rahima Moosa.
Even if the ANCWL activities gave them a new standing among ANC men, women still found themselves in a disadvantaged situation: they lacked skills and education; they were responsible for their children and their households; and the traditional image of women as weak, dependent creatures hampered the real involvement of women in the ANC structures and policies.
But internally the ANCWL struggled to developed an identity and systematic, consistent approach to policies. An ANCWL constitution was adopted.
Activities in this era centred mainly on mass action concerning passes and education.
In 1984 the ANC accepted the attribute "non-sexist" in its vision for a new South Africa.