Ettie Rout was so far ahead of her time, she routinely got into trouble for it and was even shunned.
Cyclist, vegetarian and free thinker, Ettie was tall, fit and blessed with that superabundance of energy that sometimes makes the rest of us tired just thinking about it.
But it’s because of women like Ettie that New Zealand has made huge strides in areas of sexual health.
Ettie was born February 24, 1877, in Tasmania to William John Rout and his wife Catherine Frances Mckay (along with her twin sister Nellie). The family came to New Zealand in 1884, initially settling in Wellington.
In 1896 they moved to Christchurch, where Ettie completed her education, and became a government-appointed shorthand writer, working in the Supreme Court, on official inquiries and writing for the Lyttelton Times newspaper.
For that era she was considered odd. She did not wear a corset and was often seen wearing short skirts, men's boots, and sometimes trousers.
A committed socialist, she helped establish the Maoriland Worker, a left-wing newspaper.
In July 1915, Ettie set up the New Zealand Volunteer Sisterhood, inviting women aged between 30-50 to go to Egypt to care for New Zealand soldiers. The first group went in October that year despite Government opposition.
Ettie herself arrived in Egypt early the next year and was immediately struck by the staggering high numbers of cases of venereal disease in the soldiers.
Being the progressive she was, Ettie saw this as a medical problem, not a moral one.
She wanted prophylactic kits issued to soldiers and to go even further, to set up established brothels that could be inspected.
The New Zealand Medical Corps wanted no part of it.
So Ettie, never one to be put off, started the Tel El Kebir Soldiers’ Club and then a canteen to provide rest and recreation facilities. It got her mentioned in dispatches.
A year later, with venereal disease still rampant, she tackled it head on going to London to push the Medical Corps. Using several researchers she produced her own kit, containing calomel ointment, condoms and Condy’s crystals and sold them herself near the New Zealand Convalescent Hospital.
By the end of 1917 the kits were adopted by the New Zealand Expeditionary Force and given free to soldiers going on leave.
Ettie however received no credit. In fact the Cabinet banned any mention of her in New Zealand newspapers under the War Regulations, breaching it earning them a fine of £100.
When the New Zealand Times published a letter from her suggesting the use of the kits, it led to a decision by Defence Minister James Allen to approve the kits.
Meanwhile, groups, often women’s groups, accused her of trying to make vice safe.
In 1918 she moved to Paris where she would meet the trains, handing out kits and cards telling them the way to a safe brothel she had helped set up with French venerealogist Dr Jean Tissot called her the guardian angel of the ANZACs.
The French attitude to her was very different - the French decorated her with the Reconnaissance Française Medal, their highest civilian honour.
Ettie moved to London in 1920 where she married her longtime companion Frederick Hornibrook, a physiotherapist
There she wrote books on safe sex as well as a vegetarian cookbook. After a return visit to New Zealand, Ettie died of an overdose of quinine in Rarotonga in 1936. She is buried in the London Missionary Society church yard in Avarua.
While she received little recognition during her life, she has since been seen as the campaigner she was. Christchurch's AIDs clinic is named after her.
It probably can’t be said better than in her own words - in a letter to her good friend, famous writer H G Wells, she said “It's a mixed blessing to be born too soon.”
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