Ettie Rout: Public health campaigner
Ettie Rout was a campaigner for safer sex during the First World War. Her campaign was divisive and widely condemned at the time. This hook provides opportunity for exploring attitudes towards sexual health in the past and today. It is also to investigate population health science, which has the goal of understanding, preserving, and improving the health of human populations and individuals through research, education, and community collaborations.
Ettie Rout set up the New Zealand Volunteer Sisterhood to provide a way for women to contribute to the war effort. In spite of government opposition, these women travelled to Egypt to care for New Zealand soldiers. On arrival, Ettie noticed the soldiers’ high rate of venereal disease, which was one of the main reasons Australian and New Zealand troops abroad were hospitalised. The army’s response to this problem was to encourage soldiers to abstain from sex.
Ettie Rout saw venereal disease as a medical, not a moral, problem and one that should be approached like any other disease – with all available preventive measures. To raise awareness of this issue in New Zealand, she started a letter-writing campaign, which resulted in her letters being banned from publication. Ettie developed strategies to combat the spread of the disease and tried, without success, to persuade the New Zealand Medical Corps officers to deal with the issue. One of her strategies was to design safer sex kits, which she handed out to soldiers on leave. In late 1918, these kits were adopted by the army and freely distributed to troops. She then undertook to promote brothels that used her hygiene policies.
By speaking out publicly to challenge social issues, Ettie Rout was both hated and admired. She was a woman before her time, a career woman before the war and then a campaigner during the war.
- Ettie: A Life of Ettie Rout by Jane Tolerton (Auckland: Penguin, 1992), page 104
- NZEdge website: www.nzedge.com/ettie-rout/(external link)
- www.teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3r31/rout-ettie-annie(external link)
Possible discussion questions
- What voices dominated this issue at the time? What were the different values and perspectives of these groups? How did their values and perspectives influence their responses?
- Ettie’s voice was temporarily silenced through a ban on her letters being published. Why do you think the government, military, and others tried to silence Ettie’s health campaign? What effects did their actions have on this problem?
- Ettie took members of her New Zealand Volunteer Sisterhood to Egypt against the government’s wishes. When is it right to follow one’s conscience rather than obey people in charge?
- What relevance do Ettie’s attempts to have a voice and to change behaviour during and after the First World War have for us today?
- What groups or voices are silenced or not being heard today? How can we help these voices be heard?