The Women's Health Australia (WHA) project is a longitudinal study of several cohorts of Australian women, which aims to examine the relationships between biological, psychological, social and lifestyle factors and women's physical health, emotional well-being, and their use of and satisfaction with health care. Using the Medicare database as a sampling frame (with oversampling of women from rural and remote areas), 106, 000 women in the three age groups 18–23, 45–50 and 70–75 were sent an invitation to participate and a 24-page self-complete questionnaire. Reminder letters, a nation-wide publicity campaign, information brochures, a freecall number for inquiries, and the option of completing the questionnaire by telephone in English or in the respondent's own language, were used to encourage participation. Statutory regulations precluded telephone follow-up of non-respondents. Response rates were 41% (N = 14, 792), 54% (N = 14, 200) and 36% (N = 12, 614) for the three age groups. Comparison with Australian census data indicated that the samples are reasonably representative of Australian women in these age groups, except for a somewhat higher representation of women who are married or in a defacto relationship, and of women with post-school education. The most common reason for non-participation was lack of interest or time. Personal circumstances, objections to the questionnaire or specific items in it, and concerns about confidentiality were the other main reasons. Recruitment of three representative age-group cohorts of women, and the maintenance of these cohorts over a number of years, will provide a valuable opportunity to examine associations over time between aspects of women's lives and their physical and emotional health and well-being.