A pioneering sexual historian from the Victorian Age was forgotten in her own time. She was “discovered” in the mid-1970's, but was sadly forgotten again, until a recent article appearing in the Stanford Magazine resurrected her life and work for the modern age.
Dr. Clelia Duel Mosher, who received her M.D. from Johns Hopkins in 1900 and did her undergraduate work at the Stanford School of Medicine, was a hygienist and women's health advocate who disproved of Victorian stereotypes that stressed the physical incapacities of women. Her Master's degree thesis disproved the then widely held belief that women were physically inferior to men because they could only breathe “costally,” meaning shallow, at the ribs. Instead, Dr. Mosher demonstrated it was women’s fashionable corset clothing of the time that prevented “diaphragmatic” deep breathing.
She said that women would be able to breathe with their diaphragm provided they learned to do so with enough exercise, after the constricting clothing was removed.
Her most famous work, published posthumously, was an 1892 survey of 45 women that she had conducted as preparatory material for her lecture on "Marital Relation" that she would give to the Mothers Club of the University of Wisconsin, at Madison.
The Mosher Survey: Sexual Attitudes of 45 Victorian Women, was a real and accurate survey that she would continue to conduct and record throughout her career. It is the first and only known survey of Victorian women's sexual habits. It was immediately labeled controversial because of its frankness, and its overwhelmingly sex-positive views of the participants. Mosher even included descriptions of the use of "male sheaths" (now called condoms) and a "rubber cap over the uterus" (either a diaphragm or cervical cap) used as birth control.
Dr. Mosher’s findings stood in stark contrast to the existing historical literature of the time that falsly asserted women have no sexual desires, and that sex should only be used for reproduction, never, ever pleasure!
Even today, the level of honesty and realism is remarkable. Some have theorized that the answers were so open, frank and honest because the researcher was a woman, and that the women participating in the survey knew the results would be presented to solely female audiences.
The following is a column on Dr. Mosher appearing in the Berkshire Eagle. Read it here, or at the publication’s website:
The Berkshire Eagle
March 27, 2010
By Carole Owens
“The Kinsey reports, "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" and "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female" were published in 1948 and 1953 respectively. They were heralded as the first such studies ever done. They were not.
The earliest known study of this type began in 1892, conducted by a 28-year-old biology undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin. The student was a female, Clelia Duel Mosher. She continued her survey until 1920. The total number of respondents was 45, all female. Hardly as extensive as Kinsey's work, yet it had something Kinsey's did not – responses from women born prior to 1845. The oldest of the Kinsey respondents was born a half century later circa 1890. Mosher's work offers a glimpse into the sexual behavior and attitudes of women in pre-Civil War and early Gilded Age America.
Often called the Victorian Age, the generally-held opinion about these ladies of the past is that their attitudes about sex were as limited as their sexual behavior. While not claiming 45 participants, all women, and all women on college campuses, is a representative sample, still, it appears that Victorian sexuality is not an oxymoron. Evidently it was not that our ancestress lacked opinions, experience, and information, it was that she was discouraged from ever talking about them.
Even more interesting are the attitudes themselves. One might imagine they would be censuring, judgmental, or embarrassed, but they were not. A report in the Stanford Alumni Magazine quotes respondents as characterizing sexual behavior as "a beautiful thing," a gift from nature, divine and spiritual.
Mosher was interested in more than sexual behavior. She was also interested in things associated with femininity; things that she deemed harmful. First and foremost was the 19th-century opinion that women should not exercise. Some considered it unladylike, Mosher considered exercise essential to good health. Inferior muscle development led to "inevitable illness," Mosher wrote.
Mosher received her M.D. from Johns Hopkins in 1900, and as a woman, was one of only 6 percent of all doctors. She faced discrimination against female doctors, her efforts to establish a private practice failed, and she accepted a teaching post at Stanford.
From her platform at the University, she wrote, "A great responsibility rests upon us physicians to lead women to ideas of health." Mosher was as pro-exercise as she was opposed to nineteenth-century fashion statements. The clothes were too heavy – at the height of fashion, a lady's skirt could be as wide as 13 ½ feet. The undergarments were too confining, restricting breathing. Commitment to exercise, and clothing that is healthful as well as flattering, may be commonly accepted today, but in her day, Mosher was a trail blazer; her survey was ground-breaking.
When the Mosher survey clearly shows that Gilded Age women had active sex lives, and well-formed and well-considered opinions on the subject, why do we think they did not? Perhaps it was the difference between public and private lives. There was what women did, and what they admitted to doing; how they acted and how they talked.
Perhaps it was the result of the social rituals of the day that, among many other things, forbade any mention of sex, and demanded that women appear to be at least discreet and, possibly at best, ignorant.
Perhaps it was the natural conclusion drawn from the 19th century conceit of the ideal woman. She was always sweet, kind, and generous, eschewed anything coarse or vulgar, and understood little of worldly things. This romantic construct may have been as unreal and unrealistic, as harmful to a true understanding, and as far from a woman's true nature as the 13-foot wide skirt was from her natural form.”
(Note: Carole Owens is a Berkshire writer and historian)
The following is from the Stanford Magazine. Read it here, or at its website:
Stanford Alumni Magazine, March-April 2010
The Sex Scholar
Decades before Kinsey, Stanford professor Clelia Mosher polled Victorian-era women on their bedroom behavior—then kept the startling results under wraps.
(Above Photo: Mosher doing her part. She served in the American Red Cross in France during WWI. Photo Courtesy Stanford University Archives)
By Kara Platoni
“In 1973, historian Carl Degler was combing the University archives, gathering research for a book on the history of the family. Sifting through the papers of Dr. Clelia Duel Mosher, who taught in Stanford's hygiene department around the turn of the 20th century, he came across a mysteriously bound file. Degler nearly put it aside, figuring it was a manuscript for one of Mosher's published works, mostly statistical treatises on women's height, strength and menstruation. But instead, he recalls, "I opened it up and there were these questionnaires"— questionnaires upon which dozens of women, most born before 1870, had inscribed their most intimate thoughts.
In other words, it was a sex survey. A Victorian sex survey. It is the earliest known study of its type, long preceding, for example, the 1947 and 1953 Kinsey Reports, whose oldest female respondents were born in the 1890s. The Mosher Survey recorded not only women's sexual habits and appetites, but also their thinking about spousal relationships, children and contraception. Perhaps, it hinted, Victorian women weren't so Victorian after all.
Indeed, many of the surveyed women were decidedly unshrinking. One, born in 1844, called sex "a normal desire" and observed that "a rational use of it tends to keep people healthier." Offered another, born in 1862, "The highest devotion is based upon it, a very beautiful thing, and I am glad nature gave it to us."
The survey's genesis—like its rediscovery—was a fortuitous accident. Mosher started it in 1892 as a 28-year-old biology undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin; she had been asked to address a local Mother's Club on "the marital relation" and as a single, childless woman seems to have used data collection to fill gaps in her knowledge. Afterward, Mosher continued conducting surveys until 1920, using variations on the same form and amassing 45 profiles in all. Yet Mosher never published or drew more than cursory observations from her data. She died in 1940, and the survey was entirely forgotten when Degler unearthed it.
"I remember I was so surprised when I first opened it and saw what was there," recalls Degler, 89, the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History, emeritus. "I said to the librarian there, 'Did anyone ever use these papers before?' I was sure that they'd been used before. [The subject] was something that was so instantaneously interesting at this point. And they said no, no one ever had looked at any of the papers, and certainly not at that survey. That's one of the great experiences of my life as a historian."
Degler alerted the world to the survey's existence in 1974 by analyzing it in the American Historical Review, concluding that although in the Victorian era "there was an effort to deny women's sexual feelings . . . the Mosher Survey should make us doubt that the ideology was actually put into practice." The survey was a sensation. Degler recalls feminist historians coming to the archives to make copies, and in 1980 it was printed as a book that soon hit college classrooms.
Mosher's survey, says Stanford historian Estelle Freedman, co-author of Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, was "a goldmine" for scholars. In an era when "the public ideal was that women should be very discreet, if not ignorant, about sexuality," says Freedman, Mosher was "asking very modern questions. She's opening up an inquiry about what is the meaning of sexuality for women." Mosher's survey, like her life, gave poignant testimony to the complex desires of women who were caught between traditional feminine norms and 20th-century freedoms.
(Above Photo courtesy Stanford University Archives)
Born in 1863 in Albany, N.Y., young Clelia had a scientific bent encouraged by her father, Dr. Cornelius Mosher, whom she idolized. He took her on his medical rounds and taught her to love botany and literature. Yet he couldn't bear to let his beloved—and somewhat sickly—daughter attend college, then considered a strain on young women's health. He tried to distract Clelia by helping her set up a small florist shop, but she squirreled away tuition money and off she went.
Mosher's college career was somewhat nomadic. In 1889, she entered Wellesley as a 25-year-old freshman but struggled academically and with ill health. She spent her junior year at the University of Wisconsin, where she conducted her first surveys, and in 1892 transferred to Stanford, enrolling in its second class of students. She received a physiology degree in 1893 and her master's in physiology in 1894, while working as an assistant in the department of hygiene teaching health, physiology and exercise to female students.
Thanks to a steady supply of young female research subjects, Mosher's scholarly aim soon became clear: to prove that women were not inferior to men, and that frailties chalked up to sex were really the effects of binding garments, insufficient exercise and mental conditioning. Her master's thesis, for example, showed that women breathe from the diaphragm, as men do, rather than from the chest, as was believed at the time. She concluded that this so-called biological difference was really due to tight corsetry.
She also began tracking students' menstrual periods, hoping to upend "functional periodicity," the idea that menstruation debilitated women. It was a canny subject choice for an ambitious female investigator. "That was not research that men could do easily, so she definitely claimed an area that was not accessible to men for her own research," says Elizabeth Griego, who wrote her 1983 dissertation on Mosher for an education doctorate at UC-Berkeley and spent most of the early 1980s in the Stanford archives sifting through Mosher's papers. (Griego is now vice president for student life at the University of the Pacific.)
But it wasn't until after 1896, when Mosher had moved on to Johns Hopkins to obtain her MD, that she analyzed her data. Again, she blamed nurture over nature: Painful menstruation, she concluded, was in most cases caused by inactivity, poor muscular development and the very idea of "inevitable illness." Sending girls to bed to dwell upon their discomfort, Mosher wrote, "produce[s] a morbid attitude and favor[s] the development and exaggeration of whatever symptoms there may be." Mosher was not subtle about her motivation for seeking to discredit functional periodicity. "Equal pay for women means equal work; unnecessary menstrual absences mean less than full work," she wrote. Convinced that women should stay active throughout their periods, Mosher even invented abdominal exercises—dubbed "moshers"—to counteract menstrual pain.
‘The skirt, as modified by the vagaries of fashion, has a direct bearing on the health, development and efficiency of the woman. In 1893-96 I made a series of observations on the clothing of ninety-eight young women. The average width of skirt was then 13.5 feet. The weight of the skirt alone was often as much as the entire weight of the clothing worn by the modern girl.’
–Clelia Mosher, Strength of Women (c. 1920)
By the time Mosher received her MD in 1900, there were approximately 7,000 female doctors and surgeons in the United States (almost 6 percent of the total), but they still faced discrimination. Mosher turned down a job as an assistant to a gynecological surgeon when told that men would refuse to work under her. She returned to Palo Alto and opened a private practice, but struggled to get patient referrals from male colleagues or win grants to fund her menstruation studies. In 1910, Stanford offered her an assistant professorship in personal hygiene as the medical adviser for women, and Mosher eagerly returned to academic life. "I think she started out thinking she would like to be a doctor and perhaps a surgeon, but she found the doors closed to her very quickly," muses Griego.
Instead, Griego says, Mosher found what mattered to her: a living wage, intellectual freedom and access to research subjects. Mosher restarted her menstruation research and completed a study showing that the average height of Stanford's entering female students had increased 1.5 inches in 20 years, a change she attributed to better exercise and comfortable clothing. Mosher became a full professor in 1928, one year before she retired.
Despite the increasing prevalence of professional women, Griego says Mosher was an "intellectual loner." She didn't join women's professional groups or bond with many female academics. (Her Stanford research collaborators were male.) "She was really not very interested in the kinds of things that even faculty women—certainly faculty wives—were interested in," says Griego. "She wasn't interested in teas, she wasn't particularly interested in nurturing or mentoring women. She was really a researcher and she wanted to be accepted for her scientific approach to subjects."
She cut an odd figure on campus, Griego says, in her habitual "mannish suit." In her writings, Mosher railed against fashion: Sewing dainty clothing wasted women's study time; a young girl "making tatting to decorate her clothes or knitting or embroidering while her brother is playing ball" would grow feeble and sedentary.
Mosher never married and had few close relationships, although her mother lived with her on campus. Mosher felt this anomie deeply. A diary entry from 1919 laments: "I am finding out gradually why I am so lonely. The only things I care about are things which use my brain. The women I meet are not so much interested and I do not meet many men, so there is an intellectual solitude which is like the solitude of the desert—dangerous to one's sanity."
(Toughen up: Stanford women, c. 1917, try their strength using a device of Mosher and physiology professor Ernest Martin. Above Photo courtesy Stanford University Archives)
Some archival scraps hint at her longing for connection: an unfinished novel whose heroine chooses career over the man she loves, musings on the mother-daughter bond and, the most poignant, a series of letters to an imaginary friend. "I get the sense of companionship and you are spared the boredom of reading them," Mosher wrote impishly in 1921. But in 1926, her tone was more despairing. "Dear 'Friend who never was,'" she wrote, "I have given up ever finding you. I have tried out all my friends and they have not measured up to my dreams."
Mosher's biggest scientific splash also eluded her during her lifetime.
Because it was hidden so long, her sex survey had little influence on her contemporaries, but today it's a valuable historic document that gainsays the stereotype that Victorian women knew little of sex and desired it even less. Granted, it is small and nonrepresentative, favoring well-educated, middle-class white women, and only those willing to disclose intimate matters. Mosher took care to obscure their identities—names and residences were not recorded—but it's likely the group included Stanford faculty and wives, the Mother's Club members from Mosher's Wisconsin days and other women she knew. Of those surveyed, 34 had attended a university or teachers' college. Nine were Stanford alumnae, six from Cornell; other alma maters included Wellesley, Vassar and the University of California. Thirty respondents had worked before marriage, mostly as teachers.
Slightly more than half of these educated women claimed to have known nothing of sex prior to marriage; the better informed said they'd gotten their information from books, talks with older women and natural observations like "watching farm animals." Yet no matter how sheltered they'd initially been, these women had—and enjoyed—sex. Of the 45 women, 35 said they desired sex; 34 said they had experienced orgasms; 24 felt that pleasure for both sexes was a reason for intercourse; and about three-quarters of them engaged in it at least once a week.
Unlike Mosher's other work, the survey is more qualitative than quantitative, featuring open-ended questions probing feelings and experiences. "She's actually asking these questions not about physiology or mechanics—she's really asking about sexual subjectivity and the meaning of sex to women," Freedman says. Their responses were often mixed. Some enjoyed sex but worried that they shouldn't. One slept apart from her husband "to avoid temptation of too frequent intercourse." Some didn't enjoy sex but faulted their partner. Mosher writes: [She] "Thinks men have not been properly trained."
Their responses reflected the cultural shifts of the late 19th century, as marriage became viewed as a romantic union, not just an economic one, and as people began to dissociate sex from procreation, says Freedman. One woman, born in 1867, wrote that before marriage she believed sex to be only for reproduction, but later changed her mind: "In my experience the habitual bodily expression of love has a deep psychological effect in making possible complete mental sympathy & perfecting the spiritual union that must be the lasting 'marriage' after the passion of love has passed away with the years." Wrote another, born in 1863, "It seems to me to be a natural and physical sign of a spiritual union, a renewal of the marriage vows."
‘A great responsibility rests upon us as physicians and teachers of physical training to lead women to ideas of health, to hold out to each one an attainable physical ideal, to teach the mechanism of our wonderful bodies so that she obeys the laws of her body, laws learned so perfectly that they are obeyed automatically.’
–Clelia Mosher, The Relation of Health to the Woman Movement, 1915
Anxieties about unwanted pregnancies are also clear. This was a hot topic during the 19th century, when the marital fertility rate fell by half despite the criminalization of abortion and contraception, Freedman says. At least 30 respondents reported attempting birth control anyway. Many mentioned using douching, withdrawal or the rhythm method; a few had tried a "womb veil" or male condoms.
"My husband and I . . . believe in intercourse for its own sake—we wish it for ourselves and spiritually miss it, rather than physically, when it does not occur, because it is the highest, most sacred expression of our oneness," wrote one woman, born in 1860. "On the other hand there are sometimes long periods when we are not willing to incur even a slight risk of pregnancy, and then we deny ourselves the intercourse, feeling all the time that we are losing that which keeps us closest to each other." A woman born in 1862, who felt that without "a strong desire for children" marriage was no more than "legalized prostitution," nevertheless wrote: "I most heartily wish there were no accidental conceptions. I believe the world would take a most gigantic stride toward high ethical conditions, if every child brought into the world were the product of pure love and conscious choice."
So if not all Victorian women scorned sex, why do we think of them as prudish? First, says Freedman, the notion of passionlessness wasn't universal, it was a class privilege, a way for wealthier women to claim respectability that more sexually vulnerable slave, immigrant and working-class women couldn't. "To some extent it's a protection of women from the sense of availability, and in other ways it's a limitation on them and denying their sexuality," Freedman says. Virtue was also a way for women to demonstrate good citizenship—men expressed this in the public sphere, and women in the home.
Also, some historical sources are misleading. As Degler pointed out in his 1974 article, until the Mosher Survey, much information about Victorian sex lives came from health advice books, like those of Dr. William Acton, who wrote in 1865: "The majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feelings of any kind. What men are habitually, women are only exceptionally." But these books, wrote Degler, designed to urge temperance to young women, were prescriptive rather than de-scriptive: "The so-called Victorian conception of women's sexuality was more that of an ideology seeking to be established than the prevalent view or practice of even middle-class women."
More accurate portrayals of women's lives likely were confined to diaries and letters. Similarly, Griego says, women probably unburdened themselves to Mosher as a well-credentialed female physician. "They wouldn't have responded to just anyone with that confidential information, but her own self-image as a researcher and scientist encouraged them to be honest and factual." Although the survey's size means we can't draw broad conclusions about Victorian life from it, Freedman says, it's still a remarkably telling document, "a lens on a moment of transition."
(Above Photo courtesy Stanford University Archives)
We may never know what Mosher made of her own survey. Her brief introduction merely notes that it provided "a priceless knowledge for a practicing physician and teacher; a background sufficiently broad to avoid prejudice in her work with women." A comment on the era's falling birthrate contains her only analysis: "The maladjustments in marriage occasionally occur at the first consummation of the marital relation. The woman comes to this new experience of life often with no knowledge. The woman while she may give mental consent often shrinks physically. Her slower time reaction deprives her of all physical response, or (2) too often her training has instilled the idea that any physical response is coarse, common and immodest which inhibits proper part in this relation."
Ultimately, Mosher's story is deeply ironic: She was a staunch feminist who remained aloof from sisterhood, a woman who rigorously researched sexuality and marriage yet probably experienced neither, a pioneering scholar who longed for recognition but did not live to enjoy it. Today there is an often well-rewarded place in our society for awkward overachievers, but Mosher struggled her entire life with her ungainly intellect and with being a woman in a man's research world.
"We need people to go before us, and she was certainly a way-shower for a generation that followed her," Griego says. "Even though she was not the kind of person that women of her time wanted to emulate, still she held out the possibility that women could be intellectuals, they could be scientists."
In her own writings, Mosher was acutely aware of her foresight, and of the possibilities that lay ahead for women once sex became less of a secret and gender less of a burden. "Born into a world of unlimited opportunity, the woman of the rising generation will answer the question of what woman's real capacities are," Mosher wrote in 1923. "She will have physical, economic, racial and civic freedom. What will she do with it?"
Our thanks to Holly Brady, '69, former director of Stanford Publishing Courses, for leading us to this story.
KARA PLATONI is a frequent contributor who lives in Oakland.
Unfortunately, Dr. Mosher’s sex survey is no longer in print. Let’s hope the renewed interest in this pioneering scholar and remarkable woman will be enough to bring her work back into print so generations can gain insight from it.
(My personal thanks to Surviving Survival for directing me to this Stanford Magazine article, and as a result, to the amazing Dr. Mosher!)