Ettie Rout came to prominence as a safe-sex advocate during the First World War.
Before the war, Rout had gained a public profile in early-20th century Christchurch as a cyclist, vegetarian, freethinker and physical culturist. Tall, fit and endowed with a superabundance of energy, she wore clothes peculiar to the time, was a committed socialist, and helped establish the Maoriland Worker, a left-wing newspaper.
In July 1915, during the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War, Rout set up the New Zealand Volunteer Sisterhood and invited women aged between 30 and 50 to go to Egyptian hospitals and YMCA clubs to care for New Zealand soldiers. Arriving in Egypt in February 1916, she immediately became aware of the soldiers’ high rate of venereal disease. She saw this as a medical, not a moral, problem – one which should be approached like any other disease, with all available preventive measures. She recommended the issue of prophylactic kits and the establishment of inspected brothels, and tried to persuade the New Zealand Medical Corps officers to take this view, with no success.
By June 1917, with the venereal disease problem still very bad, the New Zealand Medical Corps had not adopted prophylactic measures. Ettie Rout went to London to push it into doing so. Researching among the foremost doctors in this new field, she combined the work of several to produce a prophylactic kit containing calomel ointment, condoms and Condy’s crystals (potassium permanganate). At the end of 1917 the NZEF adopted her kit for free and compulsory distribution to soldiers going on leave.
The story of Ettie Rout reveals much about the hypocritical attitudes of her day. Although her work was of great benefit to New Zealand, and part of it was officially adopted, she was ignored and news about her was suppressed in her own country. After the war she moved to London, wrote several books and continued campaigning for various causes.
Adapted by Matthew Tonks from the DNZB biography by Jane Tolerton