Ettie Rout (1877–1936) is a New Zealand heroine almost unknown in her own country.
A resident of Christchurch, in the South Island, her first notable act was to establish the New Zealand Volunteer Sisterhood. This was a group of women between the ages of 30 and 50, who travelled to Egypt to care for New Zealand soldiers, in the wake of the Gallipoli campaign in July 1915. She met with opposition from government, but sent her first dozen volunteers to Cairo in October of that year.
Ettie Rout herself arrived in Egypt in February 1916. One of the first things she noticed was the high incidence of venereal disease amongst the soldiers. Rather than taking a moral and judgemental stance, she looked on the issue as a medical problem, preventable with care and the right equipment, and recommended the issue of prophylactic kits to soldiers, seven decades before AIDS and the campaign for safe sex took flight. She also suggested the institution of inspected brothels, and recommended both to the New Zealand Medical Corps- without success.
Concerned by the Army’s lack of care for its soldiers, Ettie established the Tel El Kebir Soldiers' Club and later a canteen at El Qantara, providing improved facilities for rest and recreation and better food. This work earned her a mention in despatches, and a place in Australian official war history. But it was to be the last official recognition she was to get from the antipodes in her lifetime.
In Paris, she managed a complete social and sexual welfare service for ANZACs, meeting them on the station, and showing them a "safe" brothel – one which she inspected regularly herself, since the Medical Corps wouldn’t do it.
The soldiers considered her a saint, and a French venereologist described her as "the guardian angel of the ANZACs", but she was denounced by an English bishop, in the House of Lords as "the most wicked woman in Britain".
In June 1917 Ettie travelled to London to once again try to persuade the New Zealand Medical Corps to adopt prophylactic measures. She produced her own prophylactic kit, which she put together on the basis of the work of several researchers. This kit contained calomel ointment, condoms and Condy's crystals (potassium permanganate). The kits were sold at the New Zealand Medical Soldiers Club, which she set up at Hornchurch close to the New Zealand Convalescent Hospital.
She caused a stir back home with a letter, published by the New Zealand Times, which outlined the problem with VD, suggested hygienic brothels and the use of prophylactics. Ironically, whilst this letter prompted defence minister, James Allen, to approve the issue of kits to be distributed compulsorily and without charge by the NZEF to soldiers going on leave, she received no credit for this, and indeed from then on, no mention of her was allowed in New Zealand newspapers during the war – at the risk of a £100 fine; a considerable amount at the time.
Regularly condemned from pulpits, Ettie was often accused of attempting to make vice safe, and a deputation of women, petitioned the prime minister, William Massey, to close down her Hornchurch club. To god-fearing New Zealand women, she was "an agent of Satan".
At the end of the war, Ettie was awarded the Reconnaissance Française by the French Government, (the same award given to martyred English nurse Edith Cavell) but she was persona non grata in her own country.
She settled in London, marrying Fred Hornibrook, a 'physical culturist' (body builder) with whom she had been friends for years. With her husband, she taught fitness techniques, including dance.
She was an energetic and extremely fit woman (according to her husband she “had the body of a Venus de Milo” ); qualities she needed as she continued her prophylactic campaign against VD after the war, becoming involved, too, in the birth control movement in the twenties. She played a large part in the last big birth control court case – though in common with much of what she did, this was largely ignored and forgotten, and the role attributed to Dora Russell, wife of Fabian Socialist, Bertrand Russell.
Ettie wrote several books, including a best-seller Safe Marriage – a safe sex guide which was (surprise, surprise) banned in New Zealand. In these books she encouraged women to take responsibility for their own bodies, sexuality, and sexual health, and in Sex and Exercise, she promoted physical fitness and exercise to enhance sex. She also wrote books on vegetarianism, wholemeal cookery and Maori culture.
Unfortunately for Ettie Rout, she was decades ahead of her time. Not only was she preaching radical measures, but she was preaching them as a woman. When she finally attempted to return home to New Zealand in 1936 after the failure of her marriage, she received no welcome. She was ignored and rejected by her former friends, and she travelled to Raratonga, where she suicided, taking an overdose of quinine.
Her contribution to New Zealand was only recognised more than fifty years after her death, when the NZ AIDS Foundation's Christchurch office was named for her in 1988, commemorating, at last, her pioneering role in safe sex and sexual health.
Source: Ettie: A life of Ettie Rout, by Jane Tolerton.