Melbourne's activist women have contributed to the city's traditional liberal ethos, their influence reaching beyond Melbourne to national and international spheres. The educational opportunities for women in Melbourne's secondary schools and colleges have been an important factor in this prominence and from an early period women were to the fore in civic leadership. Among the prominent women's institutions in the city were the Lyceum Club whose members included professional and business women, academics, writers and artists; the Queen Victoria Hospital 'run by women for women'; and the Melbourne headquarters of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), both international organisations actively involved in a broad range of women's issues.
The Victorian branch of the National Council of Women (NCW) was established in 1902 with 30 affiliated groups, including the District Nursing Society, the WCTU, the auxiliary of the Victorian Infant Asylum and the women writers' club. Affiliates had increased to 50 by 1912 and the Centenary gift book of 1934 described the NCW as vital in providing support for those 'who worked in the public domain to better the position of their sex'. Melbourne women were especially involved in social welfare drawing on widespread networks of suburban women involved in philanthropic causes. Women's welfare work, especially the work of the ladies' benevolent societies, was central to the complex web of welfare provision in the city and the operation of public welfare programs. Leaders of welfare organisations made a significant contribution to State and national social policies.
The suffrage petition signed by 30 000 women and presented to the Victorian Parliament in 1891, reflected the tradition of political activism in the city. Women's suffrage organisations included the WCTU and the Victorian Women's Franchise League. Vida Goldstein, founder of the non-party Women's Political Association, was an outstanding Melbourne feminist with an international profile.
The Australian Women's National League, formed in Melbourne in 1904 as a focus for conservative women voters, became Australia's largest women's political organisation under the leadership of Eva Hughes and Janet Lady Clarke. Drawing support from the women of Melbourne's eastern and bayside suburbs, the League remained influential, forming a close alliance with the United Australia Party until subsumed into the Liberal Party in the 1940s.
Activists in Melbourne's large female workforce in manufacturing and retail influenced working conditions for women and children through their involvement in the labour movement. Lilian Locke was one of the first female labour organisers, employed by the Victorian Political Labor League (later the Australian Labor Party) when women gained the vote. Alice Henry drew on her experience as a journalist and activist in the women's movement in Melbourne for her involvement in the Women's Trade Union League in Chicago and for her publications on trade union women. Muriel Heagney, a tireless campaigner for equal pay for women, and Jean Daley, women's organiser for the Victorian branch of the Australian Labor Party from 1926, were an energetic duo working on women's issues at national and international levels.
By the 1920s a significant number of Melbourne-based women's organisations had international affiliations. Both the NCW and the Australian Federation of Women Voters were affiliated to the International Alliance for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship. The Victorian Women's Graduate Association was affiliated to the International Federation of University Women and local branches of international organisations such as the Red Cross, the League of Nations Union and the Pan Pacific Union were well supported by Melbourne women. Two presidents of the international board of the YWCA (Dr Georgina Sweet and Dr Una Porter) were from Melbourne.
The extension of public secondary education for women and the opening of Monash and La Trobe universities in the 1960s broadened the base of Melbourne's women's movement. Unlike the organisations that flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, the postwar movement in Melbourne was led by younger women, but they retained an emphasis on rights and political lobbying and reliance on extensive women's networks to mobilise support.
Marion Simms describes the 'bewildering array' of groups represented at the first Women's Liberation Movement (WLM) conference held at the University of Melbourne in 1971. Melbourne's movement, she argued, was more 'openly pluralistic' and represented a wide range of action groups than those in other cities. The Melbourne-based Women's Electoral Lobby (WEL), founded in 1972 by University of Melbourne graduates of the 1960s, had an immediate national profile demanding access to abortion and affordable child care. Other Melbourne-based advocacy groups which influenced national policy included Community Child Care, the National Council of Single Mothers and Their Children and the Working Women's Centre. Such groups shared experiences with academics, women from ethnic organisations and women trade unionists at the large and inclusive Women and Labour Conference held at the University of Melbourne in May 1980.
The diversity and influence of activist women's networks and their influence on progressive issues continues to be a Melbourne tradition. Women's participation in politics has been encouraged by Victoria's first woman Premier, Joan Kirner, through Emily's List, while organisations such as the Victorian Women's Trust continue to mentor and encourage women's activism.