Sex scholar, Victorian-style

Decades before Kinsey, Stanford professor Clelia Mosher polled Victorian-era women on their bedroom behavior — then kept the startling results under wraps

By Kara Platoni

DOING HER PART: Mosher served with the American Red Cross in France during World War I. (Photo: Stanford University Archives.)
Doing her part: Mosher served with the American Red Cross in France during World War I. (Photo: Stanford University Archives.)

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.

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.

(Photo: Stanford University Archives.)
Clelia Mosher in an undated photograph. (Photo: Stanford University Archives.)

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.

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."

Stanford women, c. 1917, try their strength using a device of Mosher and physiology professor Ernest Martin. (Photo: Stanford University Archives.)
Stanford women, c. 1917, try their strength using a device of Mosher and physiology professor Ernest Martin. (Photo: 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."

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."

(Photo: Stanford University Archives.)
Clelia Mosher in an undated photograph. (Photo: Stanford University Archives.)

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."

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?"

March/April 2010 — Return to Cover