Theme National Woman's Christian Temperance Union of Australia

Alternative Names
  • Woman's Christian Temperance Union of Australasia

Written by Jane Carey, Monash University and Patricia Grimshaw, The University of Melbourne

The Woman's Christian Temperance Union of Australasia (WCTUA), later renamed the National Woman's Christian Temperance Union of Australia (NWCTUA), and, since 2009, WCTU Australia Ltd, was formed in May 1891 at a meeting held in Melbourne for the purpose of federating the existing colonial unions. This was almost certainly the first interstate gathering of women's organisations held in Australia and the WCTU was the first national women's organisation in the country (Carey, 'NWCTUA', AWR). Its years of prominence would span the period from 1891 to the post-World War II reconstruction period, but it sustained a place in public debate and lobbying on a range of social issues throughout the 20th century.

The American WCTU offered leadership in progressive reform that had significant influence on the Unions in Australia, given their foundation by 'missionaries' who had worked in the United States. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union had its origins in the American West of the early 1870s. Bands of women began to demonstrate to curb the activities of bars, protesting against the public drunkenness and fighting and the domestic violence that drinking alcohol often precipitated. The movement spread, leading to the formation of state women's temperance organisations and, in Cleveland in 1874, a national organisation: the American Woman's Christian Temperance Union ('WCTU-Our History'). These female activists, though voteless themselves, lobbied to persuade male politicians in state legislatures and in Congress to restrict opening hours of bars, to raise the legal age of purchase of alcohol, and to offer male-and eventually female-citizens the option of banning the sale of alcohol in their districts.

The American WCTU emerged with astonishing rapidity as the largest and most formidable women's organisation in the country. Under the charismatic leadership Frances Willard from 1879, the WCTU's goals intertwined with those of the women's rights movement. Meetings were conducted according to formal rules so that women might prepare themselves for a place in public life. Under Willard (dean of a women's college), the WCTU promoted such causes as women's higher education, physical education for girls in schools, and free kindergartens; equal pay for equal work, a living wage, the eight hour day, courts of conciliation and arbitration; protective laws for women and children in the workplace, reform of laws on marriage and divorce; dress reform, prison reform, shelters for abused mothers and their children; and world peace. This was a generous reform agenda, well within the range of American progressivism, within which political citizenship for women became a key goal.

In 1883, as Ian Tyrrell has shown in Woman's World, Woman's Empire, Willard forged an alliance with Lady Isabella Somerset, president of the British Women's Temperance League, to form the World's Woman's Christian Temperance Union (now World WCTU). In effect, this new body opened the way for the Americans to gain a foothold in Britain's very large Empire, as the reformers extended their brief to global social reform issues, especially the impact of alcohol, though they also stressed protective laws of all kinds and other aspects of the progressivist agenda. If Asia was their main focus, the World's WCTU was also alert to opportunities to encourage the organisation in Britain's settler colonies, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia among them.

While the first local WCTU in Australia was formed in Sydney in 1882, the growth of other local WCTUs was stimulated by the visit of Mary Leavitt, the first world missionary of the World's WCTU, who arrived in Australia in 1885 and immediately set about forming branches in country towns as well as the major cities. During her visit, she formed five branches in Queensland, one in New South Wales, one in South Australia and three in Tasmania. Victoria's first local Union was also established in 1885. Not all of these local groups thrived at first, and it took some time for colony-wide Unions to form, but the movement was reinvigorated and consolidated by visits from the WWCTU's second world missionary, Jessie Ackerman (Tyrrell, ADB), in 1889, 1890-1892 and 1893-1894; her work included the establishment of a Western Australian union (1891). She was central to the foundation of the WCTU of Australasia in 1891 (though New Zealand in fact sustained its own organisation) and became its first president. Ackermann returned to Australia in 1907 and 1910 in a different capacity; in total she spent five years in the country and was to write the first book on Australian women, Australian from a Woman's Point of View, published in 1913.

Ackermann's work towards the establishment of the interstate union was crucial for the spread of ideas and information in a country roughly the size of the United States but with a comparatively quite small population and underdeveloped road and rail transportation (Tyrrell, ADB). The relatively strong growth of the WCTU owed much to the organisation's grounding in a Protestant evangelical Christianity that lent particular determination and skills to their campaigns. Given the strength of Methodism (Willard was a Methodist), Congregationalism, Presbyterianism and the Baptist churches in the colonies and the dissatisfaction of many women of middle- and lower middle-class background with the limitations of their parish work, the WCTU opened new possibilities for women for engagement with public life (Smart, Modernity).

The leadership of Willard, Leavitt and Ackermann demonstrated the advantages of an education in American tertiary colleges as well as their wide experience of public life in a populous, dynamic country that was emerging as wealthy, and industrially and technically advanced. The Australian women attracted to the WCTU had seldom had training that involved such advantages but, like other Australian women who engaged in public life at this time, they were smart, resilient and endowed with an optimistic ingenuity as they responded positively to the possibilities the organisation offered. The WCTUA constitution of 1900 clearly outlined how a variety of social and political issues were intertwined for the Union:

We believe in total abstinence for the individual, prohibition for the state and nation, equal standard of purity for men and women, equal wages for equal work without regard to sex, the ballot in the hands of women, arbitration between nations … [the] Holy Bible as our standard faith. (Carey, 'NWCTUA', AWR)

It was an agenda that often puzzled contemporary and later observers, but understanding its origins in the American temperance movement is clarifying. The WCTU upheld 'traditional' family values and aspects of accepted femininity in ways feminists at a later date would find conservative, yet the Union was nevertheless a progressive force at this time. Perhaps the term 'small "l" liberal' might describe many members' political inclinations; a few were further to the left. Under its broader agenda of 'home protection' and the promotion of a healthy lifestyle, and in its belief that the dangers of alcohol and immorality could not be tackled in isolation, the WCTU pursued a wide-ranging reform agenda mostly relating to the welfare of women and children.

Jessie Ackerman ensured that women's suffrage was high on the agenda in the early activities of the Australian Union. The WCTUA leaders and the Union's colonial and state affiliates became major supporters of the campaign for women's suffrage, believing like their American sisters that power at the ballot box was the only way to achieve their goals. The Union played a significant part in the suffragist campaign-one often not fully acknowledged-first because of its wide outreach through the temperance movement into Protestant churches, including in rural areas, and, second, because it formed an Australia-wide network through which leaders could co-ordinate publicity and public debate. It would be hard to envisage the relatively early passage of the franchise in Australia without the organisation's close involvement (Oldfield).

From their formation, the colonial and state branches of the WCTU campaigned through dedicated franchise units led by efficient and talented women. The earliest colonies to gain the suffrage were South Australia in 1894-a year after women in New Zealand were enfranchised following a WCTU-led campaign (Grimshaw, 1987)-and Western Australia in 1899. In these colonies, the WCTU led the campaigns, which was true also for Tasmania in 1903. Though most of the highly prominent and talented suffrage leaders in each colony/state worked from dedicated suffrage societies, the impact of the WCTU's campaigning was significant not only in SA, WA and Tasmania but in all the states. The alignment of women's suffrage with prohibition attracted the hostility of the liquor trade, but the suffrage campaigners in the WCTU worked around this by fostering collaborative links with non-temperance reformers through participation in-and sometimes the inauguration of-separate suffrage associations.

The calibre of the temperance leaders may be considered in the career of just one remarkable leader, the suffrage campaigner, Mrs Elizabeth Nicholls (Mune, ADB; Secomb, AWR). Nicholls was an outstanding figure, first in the campaign in South Australia and, eventually, nationally. Born in 1850 in Adelaide, Nicholls joined the WCTU in 1886, and was elected colonial president in 1889, a position she held until 1897. She joined the South Australian Women's Suffrage League on its formation and became a League councillor. In 1894, Nicholls assumed the position of colonial superintendent of the WCTU's Suffrage Department and, from 1894 to 1903, she was the Union's Australasian president, a period during which suffragists from every colony/state were fighting for the inclusion of the vote in the proposed Commonwealth's Constitution. Post-federation, she served as state president of the South Australian WCTU from 1906 to 1927 and joined the Women's Non-party Political Association on its foundation in 1909. She served on the Board of the Adelaide Hospital from 1895 to 1922 and was a Justice of the Peace-one of the first four women to serve in this capacity-from 1915. Hers was an impressive career in voluntarism.

In Western Australia, three WCTU women were to the fore: Christine Clark (Francis, 'Clark', AWR), Emily Hensman and Janetta Griffiths-Foulkes. The latter two were members of the prominent Karrakatta Club, the first women's club in Australia, which generally supported 'uplift' for women but was split on the desirability of women's suffrage. In New South Wales, where women won the vote in 1902, after the federal legislation went through, one of the WCTU suffrage leaders was widely connected reformer and mother of nine, Lady Mary Windeyer (Lemon, 'Windeyer', AWR), whose daughter Margaret Windeyer followed in her mother's footsteps in public work as founder of the first National Council of Women (NCWNSW) in Australia. Jessie Rooke (Gardam, ADB; Lemon, 'Rooke', AWR) led the successful Tasmanian campaign leading up to the passage of the vote in 1903. President of the Burnie branch of the WCTU from 1894 and of the state branch from 1898, she helped with the formation of Tasmania's NCW in 1899 and assisted the campaign for the federal vote. Queensland's WCTU provided several outstanding suffrage leaders for its successful campaign leading up to the legislation of 1905, among them Elizabeth Brentnall (Butterworth, AWR) and Margaret Ogg (Crouchley, ADB). Victoria's WCTU provided leadership from the notable Marie Kirk (Hyslop, 'Kirk', ADB; Carey, 'Kirk', AWR), Margaret McLean (Hyslop, 'McLean', ADB: Colwill, AWR) and Annette Bear-Crawford (Brownfoot, ADB; Lemon, 'Bear-Crawford', AWR); the temperance speaker, Bessie Harrison Lee (later Cowie) (Mitchell, ADB), also wrote and spoke on behalf of women's suffrage, which was belatedly conceded in 1908. Only Lee, wife of a railway worker, received remuneration for her efforts. The single women activists held down jobs; the married women, mothers and housewives for the most part, looked to husbands, undoubtedly like-minded, for sustenance.

The work of the WCTU members expanded in the decades after the state governments and the Commonwealth government extended political citizenship to women. Judith Smart identifies the WCTU as prominent among the numerous women's organisations of a particular group: those that defined themselves as non-party political, and were dedicated to public persuasion and the lobbying of all parties, authorities and governments on specific issues, or on behalf of particular constituencies of women. Many were affiliated with the National Councils of Women, which appeared in each state around the time of the success of suffrage. The WCTU stood out among most other organisations, however, because it preceded and helped found the Councils. In addition, the WCTU reinforced the more politically progressive elements of women's leadership in most states. Its membership peak of approximately 18,000 was reached in 1930 (WRS, 8 December 1930, 81). Though its primary focus remained reform of the laws relating to the availability of alcohol and to moral behaviour, the WCTU led the way in the fight for many issues of rights and social justice throughout the 20th century (Smart, 'Non-party', AWAL). It consistently supported gender equality and a wide range of welfare and justice reforms.

Up until the 1930s, these reforms had largely ignored issues of justice for Indigenous women, men and families, but the pages of the national White Ribbon Signal in the 1930s demonstrate a revision in WCTU attitudes and a new assessment of the effects of colonial dispossession and racism on Aboriginal people. Patricia Grimshaw, Judith Smart and Alison Holland have explored the work of the WCTU in this area during the 1930s and, in Holland's case, up to the 1950s, highlighting the influence of Australian activist Mary Bennett's important book, The Aboriginal as a Human Being (1930); the impact of the international context of the women's movement in the interwar period; the ground-breaking stance of the 1933 national WCTU conference; and, from the 1940s, the effect of the human rights agenda of the United Nations and, in Australia itself, the Women's Charter movement (Grimshaw, 1998, 209-12; Smart, 1998, 225-9; Holland, 1999, 21-27). Though this period saw the WCTU gradually shift from more protectionist and assimilationist views to ones stressing equality, cultural integrity, and Aboriginal independence and leadership, Holland also notes that WCTU leaders such as Isabel McCorkindale (Langmore, ADB), Ada Bromham (Birman, ADB; Francis, 'Bromham', AWR), Doris Blackburn (Rasmussen, ADB; Heywood, AWR) and Phyllis Duguid had to concede the limitations of their power to change government policy. Nevertheless, they helped lay the groundwork for working co-operatively and on an equal basis with Aboriginal men and women through the Advancement Leagues that emerged in the late 1950s (Holland, 1999, 26-7). Humanitarianism of this kind appeared to later activists as inadequate, timid and often patronising, of course, and the policy was just one of many other human rights causes the WCTU sustained.

The WCTU energetically, and with some ingenuity, also embraced the task of reviewing solutions to the fresh social and moral problems engendered by modernity. Their proposed policies on issues related to women's moral authority in the interwar period-often in conjunction with the Young Women's Christian Association-have been noted by Ellen Warne. The WCTU raised health concerns about smoking tobacco; drinking alcohol while driving the new cars that proliferated on the roads; the need for surveillance of children's access to films intended for adult audiences; and the desirability of sex education for girls to prevent unwanted pregnancies and risky abortions. Some saw the WCTU's interventions as unwelcome restrictions on personal liberties; they proved to be, however, somewhat stubborn problems with longevity.

While at its most influential in the years up to World War II, the organisation continued a separate existence into the 21st century. In 2003, the total national membership was 4,000 across the Unions in each state and the Circle Union in the Northern Territory. Recent priorities for the Union include: protection of the home from alcohol and other drugs; review of the age of consent; euthanasia; pornography; prevention of prostitution and brothels; control of violence and sex in the media; youth unemployment; youth suicide; gambling and the social issues arising from it; the link between literacy and crime; Aboriginal equality; equal opportunity for both men and women; law and the status of women; women and ageing; health issues, especially in regard to foetal alcohol syndrome and foetal effects syndrome; international relations and peace; and social welfare, including alcoholism and smoking addictions among women (Carey, NWCTU, AWR).

In 2013, WCTU Australia hosted the 39th World WCTU Convention in Glenelg, South Australia, to share information and discuss policies. The convention was attended by more than 180 WCTU members from 20 different countries ('WCTU-Our History').

Published Resources

Australian Women's Register Entries


  • Ackermann, Jessie, Australia from a Woman's Point of View, Cassell, London, England, 1913. Details
  • Grimshaw, Patricia, Women's Suffrage in New Zealand, rev. edn, Auckland University Press, Auckland, New Zealand, 1987. Details
  • McCorkindale, Isabel, The Torch-bearers: The Woman's Christian Temperance Union of South Australia, 1886 - 1948, Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), Adelaide, South Australia, 1948. Details
  • Oldfield, Audrey, Woman Suffrage in Australia: A Gift or a Struggle?, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 1992. Details
  • Pargeter, Judith, For God Home and Humanity: National Woman's Christian Temperance Union of Australia: Centenary History 1891-1991, Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), Adelaide, South Australia, 1995. Details
  • Tyrrell, Ian, Woman's world/​Woman's empire : the Woman's Christian Temperance Union in international perspective, 1880-1930, University of North Carolina (UNC) Press, Chapel Hill, United States of America, 1991. Details
  • Tyrrell, Ian, Reforming the World: The Creation of America's Moral Empire, Princeton University Press, 2010. Details
  • Windeyer, Victor, The Windeyers: Chapters of Family History, W. J. V. Windeyer, Sydney, New South Wales, 1992. Details

Book Sections

  • Holland, Alison, 'Post-war Women Reformers and Aboriginal Citizenship: Rehearsing an Old Campaign', in Damousi, Joy and Ellinghaus, Katharine (eds), Citizenship, Women and Social Justice: International Historical Perspectives, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne Victoria, 1999, pp. 20 - 99. Details
  • Smart, Judith, 'Modernity and Mother-heartedness: Spirituality and Religious Meaning in Australian Women's Suffrage and Citizenship Movements, 1890s-1920s', in Fletcher, Ian Christopher; Mayhall, Laura E. Nym; and Levine, Philippa (eds), Women’s Suffrage in the British Empire: Citizenship, Nation, and Race, Routledge, London, England, 2000. Details

Edited Books

  • McCorkindale, Isabel (ed.), Pioneer Pathways: Sixty Years of Citizenship, 1887 - 1947, Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), Melbourne, Victoria, 1948. Details


  • White Ribbon Journal: Official Organ of the Woman's Temperance Union of Australia (WRS), 1931 - 1994. Details

Journal Articles

  • Grimshaw, Patricia, 'Gender, Citizenship and Race in the Woman's Christian Temperance Union of Australia 1890s to the 1930s', Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 13, no. 28, October 1988, pp. 199 - 214. Details
  • Holland, Alison, 'To Eliminate Colour Prejudice: The WCTU and Decolonisation in Australia', Journal of Religious History, vol. 32, no. 2, June 2008, pp. 256 - 276. Details
  • Smart, Judith, 'A Mission to the Home: The Housewives' Association, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and Protestant Christianity, 1920 - 40', Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 18, no. 3, September 2006, pp. 13 - 39. Details


  • Warne, Ellen, 'The Mother's Anxious Future: Australian Churchwomen Meet the Modern World, between the 1890s and the 1930s', PhD thesis, The University of Melbourne, 2000. Details

Online Resources