Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Ettie Rout - A problematic hero

I came across this picture of Ettie Annie Rout the other day and decided to do a little research. What I have learned since has inspired me. And saddened me. She was a brave woman who traveled the world during wartime, took an active role addressing serious social issues, and promoted family planning and distributed advice and devices to prevent STDs and unwanted pregnancies at the risk of her social standing, and often even her personal safety. And much of writings were most certainly classist, if not completely racist.

As often happens when discussing humans, and especially those from other eras, the person who does amazing works is still likely to be a flawed character. The dilemma for any historian, even a part-time history blogger like myself, is how to simultaneously celebrate the parts we like and honestly address the parts we do not. How does one write about the remarkable life of a woman who risked so much to promote safe sex and family planning, while also acknowledging the terrible influence eugenics had on her beliefs? When discussing it on twitter, it was referred to as the "Margaret Sanger problem." Bascially, how do you celebrate a woman who did amazing work, but for ugly reasons?

The best answer I've come up with is to do my best to explore both the positive and negative aspects of a person's life and work. When it comes to white women in the late-19th and early-20th century, too often there is at least a tinge of colonialism, racism, and classism to be dealt with. In some cases, it is a full-on stain, and many times I leave those women for a different discussion. But sometimes, even those whose motivations were the very things we rail against today, their story is still one I find inspirational.

Such is the case with Ettie Rout. From what I can find online, her work prior to World War I was already quite impressive, and while some of the ideas behind her work as a sexual educator during and after the war are, frankly, revolting, her work itself was revolutionary.

Ettie Annie Rout was born in Tasmania on February 24, 1877. She moved with her parents from Australia to Wellington, New Zealand, when she was still a child. She did quite well in school, but family financial problems kept her from progressing past high school. Instead, she took a course on shorthand and typing, and found a position with the Supreme Court, taking notes on a wide variety of matters. It was after typing up the records for an inquiry into the conditions for farm workers in Canterbury that she joined the labor movement and used her skills and talents to aid the union. In 1910 she established the Maoriland Worker, a magazine dedicated to telling the stories of labor organizers and improving the conditions of workers.

While she was interested in helping all workers, she was particularly drawn to the problems faced by women, and aided and advised them whenever she could. I believe it is safe to say she was a feminist. She was certainly unconventional.
Ettie Rout gained a public profile as a cyclist, vegetarian, freethinker and physical culturist. Tall, fit, and endowed with a superabundance of energy, she was one of those women who were 'peculiar enough to be as God Almighty intended them to be – the equals of men, physically and mentally'. She did seem peculiar. When Frederick Hornibrook, whose physical culture school she attended, said she had a figure to rival the Venus de Milo, his point was that her figure was natural and healthy, and unfashionably uncorseted. She also wore unorthodox dress: short skirts, men's boots, and sometimes trousers. Her ideas on sexuality followed those of the social reformer Edward Carpenter, the Swedish feminist Ellen Key and the writer on sexual psychology Havelock Ellis. She was a close friend of the radical thinker Professor A. W. Bickerton.
(source: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand)
When war started, she gathered together several other brave New Zealand women and formed a group of nurses, the Volunteer Sisterhood, to assist in the care of wounded soldiers. Since she was not part of the official ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) service -- in fact, they not only did they not have government approval, the government was strongly against their organization -- she had to use her own money to finance her trip abroad during the war, which she did gladly, traveling to Cairo and immediately getting to work.

Ettie Rout with her Volunteer Sisterhood by Stanley Andrew, 1915. Alexander Turnbull Library. 1/1-014727-G

It was during her time as a nurse that she began talking and writing about safe sex practices in earnest. She saw the effects of STDs on the young men serving in the military, and wanted to prevent the spread of these diseases to others, especially women back in New Zealand, at risk when these young men returned home after the war and married. While the New Zealand authorities would have preferred to treat venereal disease as taboo and a matter of immorality, Ettie insisted it be treated like any other illness or injury -- medically, and without judgment.

She took her case to the New Zealand Medical Corps but was rebuffed. When the focus of the war, and the New Zealand command, moved to continental Europe, she stayed behind in Egypt to care for the soldiers still fighting in the Middle East. With less oversight from her detractors, she took it upon herself to establish the Tel El Kebir Soldiers' Club, as well as a canteen at El Qantara. Here soldiers could find a safe place to relax and rest.

Still, she continued to see soldiers suffering from poor health due to venereal disease -- something she knew was reasonably easy to prevent if only she could get them the education and materials they needed. In 1917, she went all the way to London to demand changes to the military's medical policies regarding the treatment and prevention of STDs. She worked with other medical practitioners to come up with a simple kit that could be easily distributed to each soldier containing the different items that were believed to diminish risks for illness. By the end of the year, she had convinced the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to make these kits a requirement for each and every soldier.

Sadly, while her kits were finally being recognized for their life-saving role, she was not. Instead, the New Zealand government banned anyone even publishing her name, in any context.
Ettie Rout received no credit for her role in the kit's development and adoption, and for the duration of the war the cabinet banned her from New Zealand newspapers under the War Regulations. Mention of her brought a possible £100 fine after one of her letters, suggesting kits and hygienic brothels, had been published in the New Zealand Times. Ironically, this letter had been instrumental in the decision of the defence minister, James Allen, to approve kit issue. Others, particularly women's groups, accused her of trying to make 'vice' safe. Lady Stout led a deputation of women to ask the prime minister, William Massey, to put an end to Rout's Hornchurch club.
(source: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand)
If she cared about her reputation at home, it didn't slow her down. Instead, in 1918 she traveled to Paris. Still operating outside the jurisdiction -- and favor -- of the powers that be, she set herself up as the woman to turn to for sexual health needs. She met each train arriving with New Zealand soldiers, giving them her card and inviting them to visit her hotel, where they could be properly instructed on how to use their kits to avoid STDs. And she worked with Madame Yvonne to establish her brothel as "approved," with routine inspections.

Ettie Rout with members of the Australian Graves Detachment, 25 July 1919, Villers Bretonneux, France, Australian War Memorial, EO5467

In 1919, she moved to the Somme, where she took over running a Red Cross depot in Villers-Brettonneux -- the site of one of the bloodiest battles in the war, where over 1200 ANZAC soldiers lost their lives. She worked with the wounded (soldiers and civilians) who remained and those brought in from elsewhere, as well as tending to the needs of the Australian Graves Detachment who were busy identifying and reburying the dead. And she continued her quest to learn more about safe sex methods and devices, as well as her quest to disseminate that information to the people who needed it.

For her work in Paris and Villers-Brettoneaux, she was awarded the Medaille de la Reconnaissance fran├žaise (the Medal of French Gratitude), given to those civilians who "performed an act of exceptional dedication in the presence of the enemy during the First World War."

So, you may be thinking She sounds like a brave and head-strong woman! Isn't that what the Self-Rescuing Princess Society is all about? Well, yeah, but...

Reading her ground-breaking book Safe Marriage, what strikes me first is her unambiguous statement that both men and women enjoy sexual relations as something more than simply a means for reproduction. And that women desire not only sex but a stable life where they can control when they have children. Yay!
With the lower animals sexual intercourse is desired only seasonally, and only for the purpose of reproduction. With the higher animals—man and women—sexual intercourse is desired more or less continuously throughout adult life, and desired much more for romantic than for reproductive considerations—that is, for the sake of health and happiness rather than for the sake of procreation only. A few women, and still fewer men, have no sexual desires. To them sexual abstinence seems more natural than sexual satisfaction. But for the majority of mankind and womankind—for all normally healthy men and women—there is this continuous desire to be happily mated.
(source: Safe Marriage)
Of course, the very next thing that strikes me is how she couches the need for safe sex practices to preserve the quality of the "race." I cannot tell in this case whether she means the white race, or simply the human race. Or maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part. Either way, she was not unlike many others promoting family planning at the time. So much of the pioneering work on prophylactics and birth control was done with an eye toward eugenics. They believed that family planning should be employed as a way to maintaining the balance between classes. And in certain cases should be compulsory. Sigh.
And again, just as the medical prevention of venereal disease was not proposed, and has not been applied for the purpose of fostering or condoning promiscuous intercourse, so the conscious control of fecundity by contraception must not be applied in such a way as to lessen the proportion of well-born citizens in the nation taken as a whole. Birth-control applied only by the responsible classes of the community combined with indiscriminate fecundity among the irresponsible masses, must inevitably lead to the lowering of the general average in character, brains and physique. It is a form of reverse selection—the responsible being out-bred by the irresponsible. What is wanted is the general application of birth-control by voluntary contraception, and the particular application of voluntary and compulsory sterilisation of the feeble-minded and unfit.
(source: Safe Marriage)

Ettie Rout (middle row, second from right) poses with a group of New Zealand soldiers in Paris, France, in August 1918.

And then there are the criticisms that most of her other books, ostensibly about diet and exercise, are all geared toward white women with the goal of "cultivating the race." [I cannot find copies of these books online, although copies of them are available in some libraries and through certain online retail outlets.] So yeah. She was going at the whole body health thing from completely the wrong angle. I mean, it's all well and good to recommend safer sex practices, healthy diet and exercise regimes, and general healthy attitudes, but not just to white people with the intention of preserving the "white race." Double ick.

I want to celebrate her for bravely standing up to the New Zealand war officials and demanding they take her seriously. Here she was in a foreign country tending to wounded and sick soldiers and trying to do her best to serve them and protect their health. She boldly walked into brothels -- places no woman of her standing would typically deign to acknowledge, much less visit -- to promote sexual health to the workers there, and giving her approval to the soldiers to visit those she deems "clean."

She continued to promote sexual health and family planning, albeit with ulterior motives, after the war. Because of this she risked, and lost, her social standing in New Zealand. After the war, she married her long-time companion and collaborator Fred Hornibrook -- the operator of the physical culture school she attended before the war -- and the two continued to work together for nearly 16 years. Sadly, the marriage did not last. When Ettie returned to New Zealand after the split, she found she no longer had any friends who would receive her. Because of her openness about sexual health and birth control, she was a social pariah. She committed suicide on September 17, 1936.

So, maybe as was mentioned in my Twitter conversation the other day, it's worth praising her bravery and noting the good that has come from it despite her actual intentions. Because of her work, and the work of like-minded people, the cause of reproductive and sexual health and family planning was eventually taken seriously by many of the same groups that ostracized her. In the intervening years, advances in medicine have fueled changes in social mores, and the increasing drive to understand human behavior is proving her correct in some of her assertions about desire. Maybe she was a woman born too soon, as she claimed in a letter to her friend H.G. Wells. Heck, in the 1980s, Christ Church named an AIDS clinic after her. Perhaps if she'd been born a little later, she would have left those colonial notions of race out of her work altogether.

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For more information, check out:
This great television production highlighting her work during WWI: Pioneer Women - Ettie Rout

This interview with Ettie Rout biographer, Jane Tolerton

This article from StuffNZ comparing Ettie Rout's work with that of modern sex educators

This article about the New Zealand Volunteer Sisterhood

And the biography by Jane Tolerton, Ettie Rout: New Zealand's Safer Sex Pioneer

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1 comment :

  1. In the works of Ettie Rout that Ive read, she talks mostly about race preservation among the Maoris and how their stomach-based dance exercises contribute to that; that we could learn from them. She's of her time. Most people then believed that intelligence was mainly inherited, so that it would become a problem if the lower working classes had far more children than the middle and upper classes. She wouldn't have witnessed much social mobility at that time. Churchill was a eugenicist; it was a very common belief due to Industrialisation and the growth of cities having worsened the health of the poor and dehumanised them.