Thanks, Dr. Clelia Mosher

We’ve covered some really ugly stories here recently about sexual assault, and I don’t know about you guys, but I need something upbeat about someone cool.

The Reddit Feminisms category recently recced this article on Dr. Clelia Mosher, who taught Stanford’s hygiene department around the turn of the 20th century. I’d never heard of her, but it turns out she did me a few favors, many years before I was even born. Among other accomplishments, she polled 45 women who’d been sexually active during the Victorian Era about their sex lives between 1892 and 1920 – or in other words, conducted one of the earliest known sex surveys. The results serve as a reminder that history is a tale told by the winners. If you’ve ever wondered how anyone managed to reproduce in those years given the levels of prudishness and naivety associated with the era:

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.”

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.

Overall, the survey answers suggest that women’s attitudes were informed by books and conversations with other women, that they had opinions on marriage, children and contraception that didn’t conform to the values of their society, and that they experienced sexual desires despite being told women didn’t feel those things. The survey was considered controversial because it revealed the women polled were sex-positive and talked about using condoms and diaphragms/cervical caps.

All this stands in high contrast to other existing historical literature of the time which holds that women have no sexual desires and sex should only be used for reproduction.

But I wonder what men of the day thought of their wives’ and lovers’ sexuality? Did they realize most women actually enjoyed sex, and denial of this was just one of society’s silly little jokes? Did they think a woman who expressed interest in sex was deviant, and look instead for one who seemed to think sex was something you endured in exchange for security and procreation? Given that we still frame sex as something women “give up” and men “take”, usually in exchange for money or promises of love or security, I’m going to guess a lot of men had no idea society was lying to them.

But Dr. Mosher contributed more than this to the first wave of feminism:

Her Master’s degree thesis disproved the then widely held belief that women were physically inferior to men because they could only breathe costally, showing instead it was only women’s fashionable corset clothing of the time that prevented diaphragmatic breathing. She found that women would breathe with their diaphragm with enough exercise.

I didn’t realize people actually ever believed women couldn’t breathe through their diaphragms. What, did they think we were a separate species?

Dr. Mosher also sought to disprove the idea that menstrual period pain forced women to lay around and suffer. Her data suggested that inactivity and poor muscle tone were the culprits behind menstrual pain – laying down and feeling ill encouraged symptoms. This research may have helped alleviate suffering and stereotypes, but Mosher’s objective was even more pragmatic: if women were to be paid equally to men, they needed to be capable of working equally, and unnecessary menstrual absences meant lesser job performance. She developed an abdominal exercise (called “the mosher”) to counteract menstrual pain. And now, one hundred years later, we have assholes like Stuart Brody working on exercises designed to help women achieve vaginal orgasms with unsafe PIV sex so we can achieve the sort of confidence, emotional maturity and near-sanity he envisions for us with proper subjugation.

Dr. Mosher also wore a “mannish” suit and argued that the time it took women to sew delicate laces and complicated dress patterns was time women should have spent being physically or mentally active. Sadly, even though we can now buy off the rack, we’re expected to spend enormous amounts of time on appearance – shaving, moisturizing, washing our hair more often than most people really need to, flat-ironing, tweezing, waxing, applying makeup, shopping for clothes, shopping for shoes, buying handbags to go with our outfits, etc.

Now imagine if Dr. Mosher was a young professor today, unfeminine in her appearance, talking about how women aren’t biologically incapable of bigger things than flat-ironing their hair, it’s just we’ve been nurtured to quash our dreams. Maybe she’d poll women from sexually repressive religions and discover they liked sex for more than just baby-making and secretly used birth control to plan their families even if their religion didn’t approve. If she did this in the United States, the conservatives would attack her viciously, offering her appearance as proof she just hates men and is whining because she can’t get laid.

Progress isn’t a straight line. It happens two steps forward, three steps back, and sometimes you lose all the gains you’ve made for hundreds of years. Sometimes I get so frustrated when I look to the twentieth century and see equal or better ideas to the ones we’re offering up now. I have to remind myself we’ve had a little over 100 years of feminism fighting several thousand years of women being traded for cattle. History made be told by the victors, but us internet losers can type faster.


  1. says

    i also enjoyed reading this. a few months ago a bought a little book from the humour section at a bookstore titled ‘Sex Tips for Husbands and Wives from 1894’ by Ruth Smythers (Beloved wife of The Reverent L.D. Smythers). the book basically adviced women to ‘give little, give seldom and above all give grudgingly’. what made it so humourous was that the author was actually serious in her advice to young brides.

    in light of that, it’s really refreshing to hear about people like Dr. Mosher.

  2. FM says

    The “give little, give seldom and above all give grudgingly” piece is actually just a hoax. It was written as a parody of 19th century beliefs, not during the actual period. The 19th century views on sex were a lot more complicated than we like to think today.

  3. Nialla says

    I didn’t realize people actually ever believed women couldn’t breathe through their diaphragms. What, did they think we were a separate species?

    Not long ago had a young person in the library who was absolutely convinced the way scientists could tell the difference between male and female skeletons was by counting the ribs. Because men have one less. Seriously. I know this is based on Biblical lore, but really, do you think God would leave men lop-sided in the rib department?

    It wasn’t until I told him to take a moment and count his own ribs that he believed me, but how many people simply never question what they’ve been told about their own biology? We need owner’s manuals for our bodies, and people who’ll read them.

    I think we’re not really all that different from Mosher’s time in a sense. Now we have the “family values” type that put for the image of how things should be, generally an idealized past when things were supposedly better. They expect everyone to live this ideal just like they do. Then we discover they have some skeletons in their closet, or that they were in the closet themselves. 😉

    It’s still about the idealization versus reality. In a few decades, we’ll probably have people wistful for how things were in our simpler times of 2010.

  4. Robin says

    I had no idea that Dr. Mosher existed, but I’m very glad that you’ve told us. She sounds fascinating. And I love that she got to the truth about female health in the Victorian era by – gasp! – asking women how they felt rather than telling them. Take that, all you male doctors and your “hysteria treatments”.

  5. says

    Now we have the “family values” type that put for the image of how things should be, generally an idealized past when things were supposedly better.

    Not so much “supposedly better” as “the people who suffered from it kept their mouths shut and knew their place” kind of time. Good days, good days. 😉

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