Thursday, March 1, 2012

Ettie Annie Rout (1877 - 1936) Pioneer for Safe Sex



Last week, I wrote about the pioneering efforts of Margaret Sanger to make birth control safe and available to all women in the United States during the early 20th century. Well, on the other side of the globe, another pioneering woman, Ettie Annie Rout (1877 – 1936) was preaching the necessity for safe sex during World War I. Like Sanger, Ettie was reviled and lauded in equal parts.  While H.G. Wells called her 'that unforgettable heroine', due to her 'safe sex' campaign, she became persona non grata in her own country.


Although she was born in Tasmania, Ettie’s family immigrated to New Zealand when she was 7, settling in Wellington where her father opened a plumber's business. At the top of her class in school, Ettie won a scholarship to high school, but she had to turn it down, when her father’s business failed and the family moved to Woodville to live with relatives. After taking shorthand and typing classes, she became one of the first government-appointed shorthand writers working in the Supreme Court. Her job gave her a rare insight into a wide range of social issues. By 1904 she had set up her own typing business as well as working as a journalist. Ettie soon gained a reputation as a cyclist, vegetarian, and freethinker, who wore what, was considered unorthodox dress for the time; short skirts, men's boots, and sometimes pants. Shocking! She was also a committed socialist, who campaigned for equal pay, health issues and labor issues.

During the First World War, Ettie set up the New Zealand Volunteer Sisterhood in spite of government opposition. When she arrived in Egypt, she immediately became aware of the high rate of venereal disease among the soldiers. Ettie saw this as a medical problem which should be approached like any other disease. She recommended not only issuing prophylactic kits but also inspecting the brothels, and tried to persuade the New Zealand Medical Corps officers to adopt this view, with little success.

Realizing the venereal disease problem was still bad and that the NZMC had not adopted safe-sex measures, Ettie went to London to push it into doing so. She created her own safe-sex kit, which contained calomel ointment, condoms and Condy's crystals (potassium permanganate). She sold the kits to soldiers at the New Zealand Medical Club, which she set up near the New Zealand convalescent hospital in Essex. When a New Zealand newspaper published her letter where she suggested free safe-sex kits and brothel inspections, it caused an outcry. A deputation of women asked the prime minister to put an end to the medical club. But her letter had the desired effect, the defense minister told the New Zealand general in charge of troops in England to do whatever he thought necessary to lower the venereal disease rate.

By the end of 1917 the army had adopted her kit, distributing it to soldiers going on leave, but Ettie received no credit. Undaunted, she went to Paris where she became a one-woman sexual welfare service for soldiers. As troop trains arrived from the front, Ettie would stand on the platform, greeting soldiers with a kiss on the cheek, handing out cards recommending brothels that she had personally inspected. For her work, the French decorated her with the Reconnaissance Fran├žaise medal, but back in New Zealand, newspapers could be fined 100 pounds, just for publishing her name. After the war, Ettie moved to England and married Fred Hornibrook in 1920, where she wrote a number of books, among them, Safe Marriage, which was banned in New Zealand, but was published in Britain and Australia. In her book Ettie encouraged women to own their own bodies and take responsibility for their own sexual health. She linked exercise and sex, arguing in books like Sex and Exercise, that exercise would enhance women's sex lives. Sort of a New Zealand Dr. Ruth!

Ettie died of a self-inflicted overdose of quinine in 1936, after her only return visit to New Zealand, after the breakup of her marriage. She was buried in the graveyard of the London Missionary Society church. In her obituary she was called Ettie Rout 'one of the best known of New Zealand women' but they did not say what she was best known for, implying that it was her typing speed.

During her lifetime, Ettie’s work polarized public opinion. While a French doctor regarded her as the 'guardian angel of the ANZACs', a bishop, speaking in the House of Lords, called her 'the most wicked woman in Britain'. Others accused her of trying to make 'vice' safe. Many of Ettie’s ideas which had seemed out there at the time, from ‘safe sex’ to pelvic floor exercises, are now mainstream, but her work and her legacy were forgotten in her own country until the late twentieth century, when the AIDS epidemic meant the same battle for safe-sex had to be fought all over again.  The AIDS clinic in Christ Church, New Zealand is now named after her.

The above clip is from a 1983 program called "Pioneer Women" which stars Karl Urban, who later went on to star in Lord of the Rings.