Reader joytulip sent me a neat STANFORD Magazine profile of Dr. Clelia DuelMosher, a fascinating woman who taught in Stanford’s hygiene department at the turn of the 20th century. From 1892 to 1920, she conducted sex surveys of women, including the earliest known survey of its type. The surveys were entirely forgotten until historian Carl Degler unearthed some of the questionnaires whilst combing the Stanford University archives in 1973.
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.
There is more to Mosher than the sex surveys. She was a harpy in every way! Her scholarly objective was to prove that women are not inferior to men. Frailties chalked up to innate sex differences were really the effects of binding garments, insufficient exercise and mental conditioning, she argued. Her master’s thesis showed that women breathe from the diaphragm just like men do, rather than from the chest, as was believed at the time. She concluded that tight corsetry accounted for this alleged biological difference.
Mosher was a loner who didn’t fit in with her male colleagues or with other women. Read the whole piece here.