Sacrificing the personal for the political, Jock Phillips

Ettie: A Life of Ettie Rout 
Jane Tolerton,
Penguin Books, $39.95

Ettie Rout has been known to us primarily as the woman who stood on the platform in Paris during the Great War and handed out anti-VD kits to soldiers on leave, a service for which she was abused by the women and government of New Zealand. As this book reveals, Ettie’s life was much richer than that, and it is tempting for a reviewer to get so caught up in the fascination of the subject that the author gets forgotten.

An initial tribute must, therefore, be paid to Jane Tolerton, who for over a decade now has been digging away at this story. She did not have an easy task. Ettie Rout did not leave behind a store of private papers, and characteristically, as we shall see, she wrote letters about her causes, not about herself. In pursuit of those causes, she often worked indirectly, most commonly indeed through a male spokesman, so that even the public career is at times elusive. And such was the range of circles within which Ettie moved that Jane Tolerton had to master a variety of topics. Yet she has succeeded admirably. From a multitude of sources she has pieced the story together and then presented it with a mature judgement and a lively, engaging style.

Like most biographers, Tolerton has an enthusiasm for her subject which gives the book a pace and sense of excited discovery. She stands in awe of Ettie’s energy and total commitment to issues. She revels in the florid richness and sheer power of Ettie’s prose. But Tolerton has no illusions about her subject’s faults. She describes Ettie’s extraordinary manipulations, and at times self-deceptions, in pursuit of her campaigns with a dry, slightly shocked detachment, and is quite open about her errors of judgement, such as her writings on Maori symbolism in the 1920s.

Like all good biographies, the book works both as a history and as a novel ‑ a history which uses the life of one person to point up broad social trends; a novel which involves the reader in the triumphs and tragedies of an individual psyche. The book makes a substantial historical contribution, for Ettie moved in some fascinating arenas and the force of her personality threw a strong beam of light upon the circle around her. In reacting to her, people revealed themselves. We learn about the history of shorthand, which is where Ettie first established a career; and then she becomes involved in the Canterbury labour movement during the first two decades of the century. The complex story of Ettie’s role in the founding of the Maoriland Worker provides a slightly jaundiced view about the politicking and dogmatism of the ‘Red Feds’. In Christchurch her involvement with Professor Bickerton and his remarkable community in the sandhills of Sumner uncovers the prejudices of establishment Christchurch, while her forthright opinions about the contemporary women’s movement point up the genteel moralism of Anna Stout and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Ettie’s war work, of course, remains the most damning indictment of the society around her. Her dedication to the task of researching a suitable kit for the prevention of venereal disease, and then her campaign to have the New Zealanders adopt that kit, saved lives and brought gratitude from individual soldiers; but it brought only abuse and eventually suppression of her name from the authorities. Her work is the best exposure of the hypocrisy of the New Zealand moral code in the first half of this century. In the 1920s, too, her continued involvement in the campaign for the use of contraceptives brought revealing interactions with those two great leaders, Marie Stopes in England and Margaret Sanger in the United States.

In the end, valuable as all this is for the historian, it is the novel which grabs the attention. Ettie’s life was always one of contradictions between public pronouncement and personal need. The person who praised universal motherhood was never a mother. The woman who sought to present a healthy and positive view of sex does not appear to have experienced a long and satisfying sex life. Fred Hornibrook, who began as her lover and then her husband, became increasingly a partner in her campaigns until eventually, as the campaigns wound down, there was nothing left in the relationship. The woman who committed suicide in Rarotonga in 1936 had given all for causes larger than herself and she had no relationships or personal satisfactions to live for. Ettie Rout’s life became a tragedy in which the private was sacrificed for the public, the personal for the political.

As women have increasingly taken on careers and public lives over the past decade, the balance between these two poles remains for many women today, as indeed for men, one of the great emotional conundrums. That is one reason why, amid the flood of books about New Zealand women which will descend upon us in 1993, Jane Tolerton’s Ettie will stand out as among the most pertinent.

 

Jock Phillips is Chief Historian at the Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs.

 

 

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