Dr. Clelia Mosher (1863 - 1940) was a brilliant and extraordinary woman who made debunking the claims of Victorian medicine regarding the frailty of the female body her life's work. As a young woman she was forced to face these stereotypes head on when her father forbade her to attend college due to her sickly childhood. In order to encourage her to stay at home, he built a sort of "educational laboratory" in their family greenhouse. He encouraged her to learn botany and horticulture in this sheltered environment. Rather than simply accepting his plans for her, Clelia spent the next few years studying and running a successful business as a florist.
After eight years of working, she announced to her rather startled parents that she had saved enough money to put herself through school whether they approved or not. She had some initial difficulty adjusting to college, but despite her father's dire predictions, she did not succumb to a mental or physical collapse. She did begin to realize how wrong "modern" medicine was about what women were capable of. If she could prove her own father, an esteemed physician, wrong maybe there were other cases where medical science was distorted in it's judgement of the "weaker" sex.
For her Master's thesis in 1894 she published a physiological study disproving the idea that women and men breathe differently. The prevailing view among doctors at the time was that men breathed downwards with the diaphragm (think belly breathing as advocated by most singing teachers) while women breathed upwards with the chest due to the physiological demands of pregnancy. After studying numerous college co-eds and young, unmarried mothers from a local shelter she determined, rather unsurprisingly to our modern eyes, that women were perfectly capable of breathing downwards with their diaphragms when they weren't tightly laced into constrictive corsets!
After this triumph of empirical science over baseless speculation, Mosher was inspired to begin studying one of the more fundamental female ills of her day, menstruation. Most women in the 1890's expected to be virtually incapacitated during their monthly menstrual period, which led to the general conception that menstruation made women unsuitable for many sorts of jobs or schooling requiring regular attendance. Mosher felt sure that, just as with the breathing issue, there must be other forces at work causing this discomfort. She hoped that such forces could be mitigated or removed entirely once they were identified.
The vast pool of data that Mosher gathered on healthy menstruating women prompted her to enter medical school in 1896 seeking the skills and knowledge she would need to analyze it. At least one older, established male physician tried to pressure her into giving up her data him for study, but she stood her ground, refusing to relinquish it. She was finally able to return her analysis in 1910. She found that women were uncomfortable during menstruation not because of a flaw in their basic physiology but because, in essence, they dressed impractically, did not exercise well, chose their diets poorly, and expected to be in pain. These findings started her life long campaign to encourage women to focus on the health of their bodies instead of sacrificing them on the altar of fashion.
She went on to prove that the physical strength of women was no less, when developed, then that of men. She based these findings on observations she recorded during her time working in Paris during the Great War. After she returned to the States she published a book refuting the commonly held fear that menopause would lead women to dysfunction of even insanity.
Perhaps her most famous work is one that was not published in her lifetime. In 1892, as a junior in college, she was invited to speak to the Mothers Club on the topic of "marital relations." Being unmarried and having no practical experience with romance, she turned to her scientific principals. She began gathering data from real women rather than succumbing to speculation or resorting to popular "marriage manuals" written by men. Mosher developed a nine-page set of survey questions about marriage and sex and gave it to the members of the Mothers Club. She based her talk on their responses. The experience inspired her to continue studying this highly taboo subject.
Over the next 30 years she administered her survey to 47 women. The sampling was decidedly non-random and highly biased towards educated women married to college graduates, but it still presents the only existing scientific study of the intimate lives of Victorian women. Her results are often considered remarkable because they present a far more honest and enlightened view of these women's sexuality than what we would consider consistent with the prevailing "repressive" ideals of their times. Historians can not simply conclude that all right thinking Victorian women were "timid, frigid creatures simply doing their duty to their husbands" when faced with these candid responses.
The majority of the women surveyed had worked before marriage, mostly as teachers, though the sample included a librarian, an accountant, and a bookbinder. A small minority claimed to have known a great deal about sex before their marriage, attributing their knowledge to books, courses, friends, and relatives. The majority claimed to have known very little, with one woman even saying: “I was so innocent of the matter that until I was 18, I did not know the origin of babies.” 80% of the women who were willing to answer admitted that they felt desire for sexual intercourse. 72% indicated that they experienced an orgasm during sex but several reported frustration with their "slow" reactions. One woman complained, “When no orgasm, takes days to recover” and another felt it was a more practical problem in that "Men have not been properly trained."
Many of the women frankly disclosed their feelings on the "true purpose of intercourse," a question which they would have been less willing to answer for a man. Many of the women did feel that sex was meant for both reproduction and pleasure, with only a small minority indicating that only men required it or that it should be used only for procreation. Along with the younger women of childbearing age, several postmenopausal women confirmed that they both frequently had and enjoyed sex. One woman rather eloquently explained: “Even if there are no children, men love their wives more if they continue this relation, and the highest devotion is based upon it, a very beautiful thing, and I am glad nature gave it to us.”
AmericanHeritage.com biography of Mosher
Lone Voyagers: Academic Women in Coeducational Institutions, 1870-1937 by Geraldine Jonich Clifford, The Feminist Press at CUNY (1989).
"Focus 1.1: A Victorian Sexual Survey" in Understanding Human Sexuality (seventh edition) by Hyde and DeLamater
The Mosher Survey: Sexual Attitudes of 45 Victorian Women by Clelia Mosher, published in 1980
Women's Physical Freedom by Clelia Mosher, published in 1923
An overview of society's beliefs about sex during the Victorian era
This essay was written by Eva Schiffer and is available under the
Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States