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A bold move: Illicit sex

Professor Raelene Frances on women’s motivation behind their war effort, in particular the work of sex-reformer Ettie Rout.
LAURA JAMES: We’ve always heard lots about why men chose to enlist in the war. There’s tonnes of scholarship on that. But not so much on why women chose to go to war. Why do you think a lot of women did choose to go to war?
RAELENE FRANCES: I think a lot of women chose to go to war for the same reasons as men did. Some of them felt really patriotic. They wanted to be there to support the Empire, or to do the best for Australia. Some of them went just because they thought this was the opportunity for an adventure. Others went because they had friends and relatives who’d gone to fight– brothers and sometimes fiances– and I think sometimes they were hoping for a bit of romance. So a mixture of motives.
But they all wanted to be in the action, I think, was really the common denominator that drove women, whether they were enlisting as nurses or whether they were finding their own way to Europe, as we saw with the cases that we’ve talked about of Rose Venn Brown, and Lizzie Armstrong. Or other cases like Mary Chomley, who set up the Red Cross Wounded and Missing Bureau, where she saw the need to trace all those missing man who disappeared in battle, and their families were left wondering what became of them. And she ran an extraordinary organisation in Britain.
And I’m sure for Mary, she felt like she was doing something for the empire, but she was also doing something for her community at home.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: And Mary’s definitely looked like service. Even the portrait we have of Mary at the end of the presentation, she looks like she’s in the armed services. She definitely felt that was her way of helping. That was her avenue. We talked about women finding a niche and a way that they could actually help.
RAELENE FRANCES: Yeah, and actually, that’s a really interesting theme about the way in which a lot of women’s organisations mirrored military organisation. And that was true not just of the Red Cross Wounded and Missing Bureau, but also back home in Australia, a lot of these huge organisations that were formed, in the capital cities in particular, to collect all those parcels, all the goods that were parcelled up and then sent overseas, they were often structured on military lines, and they referred to themselves as the volunteer army. So it was a way in which women could feel part of the military action. Because of course, they weren’t allowed to go and fight.
Although many of them were very keen to, their services were rejected. So the only people who really– only women you were accepted into the armed services were nurses, and then quite reluctantly. You know, Australian women doctors weren’t accepted into the military. If they wanted to serve for the war effort, they had to go to Britain and sign up with the British forces.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Even– we’re talking about those volunteer organisations. It’s like these women have to be in quasi kind of services. I’m thinking of Ettie Rout and how she’s not really officially there, but she’s kind of acting and trying to do quite official things with her kits for the soldiers on leave, to try and help prevent VD. Even though the army knew this was a actually really good and helpful thing, you know, making sure that men weren’t ending up in hospitals for months and months instead of in the front line. The army was obviously horrified to acknowledge that VD was such a problem for their soldiers but eventually adopted her kits and didn’t really give her the credit that she deserved.
So they’re kind of at the sidelines of the official army world, but they’re actually really contributing a lot to the armed forces.
RAELENE FRANCES: Yeah. Well, Ettie Rout is a really interesting case. I mean, she again went under her own steam from New Zealand, and she was very active in Egypt but also later in France. And as we’ve noted, venereal disease, or sexually transmitted disease, as we’d probably say today, was a huge problem in the Australian armed forces, in particular. I mean, our rates of venereal disease were much higher, something like five times as high, as they were for the English troops, for example. And that’s partly because they were so far away from their own womenfolk. I won’t go into other explanations for why that might be so. But the fact is that the rates of venereal infection were very high.
And it was a serious threat to the fighting efficiency of the Allied forces. And you would think that it made medical sense to do something, to have some kind of medical solution to this. But we’re thinking, you know, 1916, ‘17, ‘18. The Australian community was very sensitive about the idea that the state might be sanctioning so-called immoral behaviour. So the government and the military authorities didn’t want to be seen to be actually encouraging men to go off and have illicit sex. But they were quite happy, I think, for Ettie Rout to go and hand out these prophylactic kits to the men, so that even if they did go and visit the brothels, then they could reduce the chances of infection.
And when Ettie was in France, she actually set up so-called “safe brothels,” where men could visit and have some kind of assurance that the women were taking care of themselves and also inspecting their clients, so that they didn’t take men who were obviously diseased. But this was a really, really bold move for a woman to be doing during the First World War. And not something that the politicians or the military authorities wished to talk about. But there’s no way that she would have got away with handing out prophylactic packs outside brothels in Auckland or Sydney, I think, before the war.
And she was motivated partly by a sense that it was crazy that– it was bad enough people were being sent to the war to be killed, but some of them didn’t even make it to the front line because they had syphilis. But it was the flow-on effects from these diseases. When those men, if they did survive and went home, and they affected their wives and their unborn children, the cost of that to the community was enormous. And it fell really heavily on women, who had to deal with diseased men, many of them who had mental illnesses arising from syphilis. But also, they became infected, and they had babies who were born with syphilis.
LAURA JAMES: And finally, Rae, just wanted to know how you would classify “The 100 Stories” project. Do you think that it’s a history based on archival evidence and critical inquiry? Or is it a kind of memorial, an act of commemoration, if you’d like? Because the two are quite different.
RAELENE FRANCES: I think “The 100 Stories” project is a really interesting project. Because it is, at the same time, an act of history and it’s an act of communication. And to some extent, it is an act of memorialisation, in that it does recover the names of people who otherwise probably wouldn’t feature in our history books. But I think what makes that project special is that it looks at the archival material through a critical lens and actually relates those individual stories to the bigger themes about the meaning of war. So that’s the way I would position that project.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Thanks, Rae. The full contingent of “The 100 Stories” is available online.

Watch Professor Raelene Frances discuss women’s motivation behind their war effort, in particular the work of sex-reformer Ettie Rout.

A list of supplementary readings from the interview with Professor Raelene Frances is available from the Downloads section of this step. We hope you find it useful.

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World War 1: A History in 100 Stories

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