Ettie Annie Rout was born in Launceston, Tasmania, on 24 February 1877, the daughter of Catherine Frances McKay and her husband, William John Rout, an ironmonger. She had a twin sister and a sister two years younger. The Routs sailed for New Zealand at the end of 1884, and settled in Wellington where William opened a plumber's business in Manners Street.
A pupil at the Terrace School, Ettie topped the Wellington Education Board's examination for Wellington and the Wairarapa in 1891 and gained a scholarship to high school. However, financial hardship in the wake of her father's business failure forced the family to leave Wellington for Woodville, probably to live with a relation.
After the family moved to Christchurch around 1896, Ettie attended Charles Gilby's shorthand and typing classes, where she excelled. In 1902 she became one of the first government-appointed shorthand writers working in the Supreme Court and on commissions of inquiry, work which gave her a rare insight – particularly for a woman – into a wide range of social issues. In 1904 she set up her own public typing business, initially with Horace Gilby, in Chancery Lane and also took on reporting work for the Lyttelton Times.
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.
A committed socialist, she became involved in the labour movement in 1907 when she made a verbatim record of the proceedings of an inquiry into Canterbury farm labourers' working conditions; she also acted as adviser to the union secretary. In 1910 she set up the Maoriland Worker with the New Zealand Shearers' Union, of which she was an honorary member, and edited it free of charge. But when the shearers joined the New Zealand Federation of Labour in early 1911, the newspaper was taken over by the federation and she was replaced, having produced six issues.
In July 1915, during the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War, she set up the New Zealand Volunteer Sisterhood and invited women between the ages of 30 and 50 to go to Egypt to care for New Zealand soldiers. In spite of government opposition, she sent the first batch of 12 volunteers to Cairo that October. The women worked in the New Zealand YMCA canteen in the Esbekia (Azbakiya) gardens and in hospitals; one ran a cookery school.
Ettie Rout arrived in Egypt in February 1916, and immediately became aware of the soldiers' high venereal disease rate. She saw this as a medical not a moral problem; one which should be approached like any other disease – with all available preventive measures. She recommended the issue of prophylactic kits and the establishment of inspected brothels, and tried to persuade the New Zealand Medical Corps officers to this view, with no success.
When the bulk of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force left for France that April, Ettie remained in Egypt to care for the men fighting the desert campaign in Sinai and Palestine. Believing that the army was not looking after them well enough, she opened the Tel El Kebir Soldiers' Club and later a canteen at El Qantara, to provide better rest and recreation facilities and better food. For this work she was mentioned in dispatches and in the Australian official war history.
By June 1917, having realised the venereal disease problem was still very bad and that the New Zealand Medical Corps had not adopted prophylactic measures, she went to London to push it into doing so. Researching among the foremost doctors in this new field, she combined the work of several to produce her own prophylactic kit, containing calomel ointment, condoms and Condy's crystals (potassium permanganate). She sold these at the New Zealand Medical Soldiers Club, which she set up at Hornchurch near the New Zealand Convalescent Hospital.
At the end of 1917 the NZEF adopted her kit for free and compulsory distribution to soldiers going on leave. 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.
In April 1918 Ettie Rout went to Paris where she set up a one-woman social and sexual welfare service for soldiers. As troop trains arrived from the front, she stood on the platform of the Gare du Nord, greeted the New Zealanders – with her trademark kiss on the cheek – and handed out cards recommending the brothel of Madame Yvonne, who had agreed to run her establishment on hygienic lines. Rout regularly inspected it. For her work in Paris and in Villers Brettoneux, the ruined Somme town where she ran a Red Cross depot from 1919 to 1920, the French decorated her with the Reconnaissance française medal.
In 1920 she moved to London and on 3 May married Fred Hornibrook, who became a well-known physiotherapist. There were no children of the marriage. Always primarily a campaigner, she wrote a number of books, among them Sex and exercise, Safe marriage (a contraceptive and prophylactic manual for women which was banned in New Zealand in 1923, but was published in Britain and Australia), a vegetarian cookbook, and a largely inaccurate book on Maori culture entitled Maori symbolism (which extolled the Maori as eugenicists).
After her only return visit to New Zealand, Ettie Hornibrook died of a self-administered overdose of quinine in Rarotonga on 17 September 1936. She was survived by her husband, Fred, from whom she had become estranged, and was buried in the graveyard of the London Missionary Society church (now the Cook Islands Christian Church) at Avarua.
The story of Ettie Rout shows up much about the hypocritical attitudes of her day. Although her work was of great benefit to New Zealand, and part of it officially adopted, she was ignored and news of her was suppressed in her own country. The New Zealand Returned Soldiers' Association sent a post-war tribute of £100, but this was not publicly known. In her obituary the press association called Ettie Rout 'one of the best known of New Zealand women' but did not say what she was best known for, implying that it was her typing speed.
Her work polarised opinion. While a French doctor regarded her as the 'guardian angel of the ANZACs', a bishop, speaking in the House of Lords, called her 'the most wicked woman in Britain'. Her friend H. G. Wells regarded her as an 'unforgettable heroine' and mentioned her in one of his novels. In 1922 she wrote to him, 'It's a mixed blessing to be born too soon'. Although New Zealand did not catch up during her lifetime, many of her ideas and methods have been accepted since. This is particularly evident in the naming of the Christchurch Aids clinic after Ettie Rout.