Brave, becoming an agent to prevent and treat infection.Saving lives with Cody’s crystals, condoms and Calimel. Whilst others preached abstinence with stopped ears and blindfolded eyes.
Creating the Cetena
I first happened upon Ettie Rout in 2012 when writing a dissertation on the British army and government’s response to sexually transmitted diseases in the First World War. Ettie was from New Zealand / Aotearoa and her pragmatic approach to what could be done about that ‘problem’ was in stark contrast to that of the British establishment.
I immediately thought of Ettie for the Centena. What I did not expect was to find out there was so much more to this remarkable woman.
I would like to share some of those findings and give credit to my sources.
I am indebted to Jane Tolerton for her biographical works which gave me a fuller picture of Ettie and to Nadia Gush who clarified Ettie’s work during the war using a feminist lens. Thanks, also, to the University of Winchester for obtaining inter-library loans from the University of Waikato.
Even before the war Ettie was a radical thinker and independent woman. Her progressive attitude and interest in health and well-being led her to adopt trousers and abandon wearing corsets as well as to believe in sexual autonomy for women as well as men.
During the war Ettie formed the ‘Volunteer sisterhood’ and went to Cairo to cook and care for the men but found out that the biggest issue was not the absence of women to cook for them but rather the debilitating effects of venereal disease.
Reactions to Ettie’s work in promoting health – which included a healthy sex life – were polarised. Soldiers, sex workers and some military officials welcomed her pragmatic approach in reducing infection. Others, for example church groups and many women’s groups, vilified her for ‘promoting’ promiscuity rather than abstinence. In my previous research I had found that, although effective prophylactic measures and treatments for sexually transmitted infections had been developed, (for example Calimel ointment, Cody’s crystals and supplying condoms) only the Australian and New Zealand armies distributed them freely because of Ettie’s work.
The Wellcome Library came up trumps again to illuminate some of Ettie’s life in England. After the war Ettie lived in London with her husband Fred Hornibrook and published books on safe sex, health and vegetarianism.
The letters I found at the Wellcome Library (with the help of the wonderful librarians and archivists) from Ettie in 1935 to a British birth control pioneer – Edith How-Martyn – showed Ettie was a prominent member of the birth control movement. There was a tone in the letters that suggested Ettie did not suffer fools gladly but also humour and it made me wish that I could have met her. Poignantly, the letters were also written just a year before she died.
Ettie returned alone to New Zealand / Aotearoa in 1936 but she was not welcomed and she sailed for Rarotonga. She sent out telegrams saying ‘Ettie Rout died at sea’ and took an overdose of quinine. Ettie was 59.
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