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Courtesy Stanford University Archives. In , 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 , 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 and Kinsey Reports, whose oldest female respondents were born in the s. 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 , called sex "a normal desire" and observed that "a rational use of it tends to keep people healthier.
The survey's genesis—like its rediscovery—was a fortuitous accident. Mosher started it in as a 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 , 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 , and the survey was entirely forgotten when Degler unearthed it. 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 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. Degler recalls feminist historians coming to the archives to make copies, and in it was printed as a book that soon hit college classrooms. 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. Born in in Albany, N. 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 , she entered Wellesley as a 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 transferred to Stanford, enrolling in its second class of students. She received a physiology degree in and her master's in physiology in , 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. Griego is now vice president for student life at the University of the Pacific. But it wasn't until after , 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.
Convinced that women should stay active throughout their periods, Mosher even invented abdominal exercises—dubbed "moshers"—to counteract menstrual pain. In I made a series of observations on the clothing of ninety-eight young women. The average width of skirt was then The weight of the skirt alone was often as much as the entire weight of the clothing worn by the modern girl. By the time Mosher received her MD in , there were approximately 7, 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 , Stanford offered her an assistant professorship in personal hygiene as the medical adviser for women, and Mosher eagerly returned to academic life. 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. Mosher became a full professor in , one year before she retired. Despite the increasing prevalence of professional women, Griego says Mosher was an "intellectual loner. Her Stanford research collaborators were male. 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. 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 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.
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. But in , her tone was more despairing. 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.
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.
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. 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.
Anxieties about unwanted pregnancies are also clear.Women want sex Carl
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