Forming its first Melbourne branch in 1886 when Mary Leavitt of the American Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) launched the movement in Australia, the WCTU emerged in most suburbs and country towns to become the largest women's movement in Victoria with over 3000 members in 1892.
The WCTU cooperated with other temperance groups to agitate for laws restricting the sale of alcohol (most particularly through local option) and to educate the public on the importance of total abstinence. The WCTU was involved in a number of other Protestant social reform movements: anti-gambling, Sabbatarianism, anti-sweating, the antiwar and peace movement, raising the age of consent, and banning the sale of drink and cigarettes to minors.
The WCTU was a significant force in women's politicisation, recruiting many women into political activity for the first time. Many women believed that the legal suppression of drink would solve the problem of domestic violence. They felt hampered, however, in procuring the necessary laws as they lacked the vote at colonial elections. For this reason, throughout the 1890s the WCTU co-operated with other women's suffrage organisations, becoming a central force in the women's suffrage struggle.
The WCTU provided community services as well as law reform. It opened coffee shops, youth recreational centres, and public drinking fountains. In 1892 it opened Isabel Somerset House, a hostel for girls in Spencer Street. In the first decade of the 20th century the WCTU was instrumental in the introduction of children's courts, police matrons, rehabilitation facilities for women alcoholics, free kindergartens and public playgrounds. Throughout the century the WCTU promoted total abstinence and restrictions on liquor's sale. Today the organisation is largely devoted to public education on the health and social dangers of alcohol.