Safe-sex advocate Ettie Rout was well ahead of her time when she campaigned for preventive measures for venereal diseases. New Zealand women rewarded her efforts by writing to national newspapers expressing their bitter abhorrence at her effrontery in slackening the moral fibre of their good men overseas. A century on, our society is catching up with Rout’s pioneering harm-reduction philosophy.
Born in Launceston, Tasmania, Australia, she was raised in Wellington, New Zealand from 1884. After leaving school, she became a shorthand typist for commissions of inquiry and the then Supreme Court (now the High Court, and not to be confused with the present Supreme Court). Biographers believe this job gave her a wide range of experiences on social issues. She was later a reporter, businessperson, and writer, but most importantly, she was a campaigner on sexually transmitted infections.
Ettie Rout’s experiences founding a volunteer nursing group during World War I, the New Zealand Volunteer Sisterhood, made her aware of the prevalence of STI among servicemen. By 1917, the New Zealand Army had made free distribution of her safe sex kit compulsory. It was for work in Paris, inspecting brothels and recommending them to arriving servicemen, and in the Somme, that she was decorated by the French. In 1917 she and several other New Zealand nurses were Mentioned in Despatches by General Sir Archibald Murray
Ironically, in New Zealand, her exploits were considered such that her name, on pain of a £100 fine, could not be published. However though, her activities could be published.
Similar ironies were found overseas; her 1922 book, Safe Marriage: A Return to Sanity, was banned in New Zealand, but published in both Australia and Britain. In the latter, it was a best-seller. However, in the House of Lords, a bishop called her ‘the wickedest woman in Britain.