Founded in 1904 by politically interested women with links to the Victorian Employers' Federation, within a decade the Australian Women's National League (AWNL) attracted 52 000 members to a platform comprising loyalty to the throne and Empire, opposition to state socialism, education of women in politics and protection of home life.
Unlike the earlier Woman's Christian Temperance Union, which eschewed links to political or parliamentary groups, the AWNL and its interstate counterparts were the first women's groups to align themselves with conservative politics, particularly free trade and Country Party interests.
Australian women first exercised their federal voting rights in 1903. In a campaign notable for a high level of female interest, women's organisations, such as the Women's Political Association, campaigned for separate parliamentary representation for women. But most women identified their interests on class and party lines and supported free trade, Deakinite and Labor causes. The campaigning by conservative women in the Corio and Balaclava campaigns laid the groundwork for the later formation of the AWNL.
Notwithstanding its 'reactionary' reputation, the AWNL was an early supporter of equal pay for professional women, and by 1906 supported State women's suffrage. The AWNL's conservatism was predicated on the belief that women's interests were best realised by minimal state interference in the realms of workplace and home. Its insistence on organisational autonomy was not a feminist gesture but reflected a pragmatic assessment that outside influence of male-dominated party organisations was more effective than internal lobbying.
By the early 1940s, the AWNL leadership judged the time as ripe to integrate the League with mainstream conservative politics. In 1945, despite the protests of a vigorous minority, the League merged with the Liberal Party of Australia. Uniquely, the AWNL secured equal representation for women within the administrative hierarchy of the Victorian division of the party.