The Mosher Report


The nineteenth century was, according to the stereotype, ashamed and fearful of all things sexual. It was an era when, as one visitor to America swore, teachers put “modest little trousers with frills at the bottom” over the “limbs” of their pianos. The Victorian woman’s lack of passion was proverbial, her frigidity extolled by the popular hygiene books and marriage manuals of the day.

But were Victorian women in fact passionless? In a remarkable survey that historian Carl Degler found in the Stanford University Archives, it appears that at least one group of Victorian women defied the stereotype: they approached sex with gusto. This survey, though very small, appears to be the earliest systematic study of the sexual habits and attitudes of American women, including information on sexual desire, frequency of intercourse, and orgasm.

Other studies, such as those of Alfred Kinsey and Shere Hite, deal almost exclusively with women born in the twentieth century; this survey contains responses of women born at the time of the Civil War. It was a study made years ahead of its time, but only part of the memorable career of the researcher, Clelia Duel Mosher, a physician who devoted her life to destroying the notions of physical inferiority that had stigmatized women.

She was born on December 16,1863, in Albany, New York. Her father, Cornelius, and four uncles were physicians. Cornelius Mosher married Sarah Burritt and settled in Albany where he became an authority on insanity, a member of the Board of Education, and the father of two girls.

In 1931 Clelia Mosher dedicated her unfinished autobiography “to my father, who believed in women when most men classified them with children and imbeciles.”

When Mosher was eleven, her father sent her to the Albany Female Academy, from which she graduated in 1881, apparently planning to go to college. But Dr. Mosher forbade it, believing that his daughter, who had been a tubercular child, was much too delicate for college work. Moreover, her sister, Esther, had just died, and he wanted his remaining child at home. In order to keep her there, he converted the little greenhouse attached to their home into an educational laboratory where he taught her botany, and he hired a florist to give her lessons in horticulture. Gradually Dr. Mosher allowed her to expand the greenhouse and launch a business career as a florist. But his bid to keep his daughter at home backfired; in 1889 Mosher announced that she had earned and saved two thousand dollars—enough for four years’ tuition at Wellesley College, to which she had just been accepted.

This self-reliant young woman became a twenty-five-year-old freshman in the fall of 1889. For a time it looked as though her father’s fears for her health had been justified. Ill-prepared for college, she was overworked. By the end of her first year, she was near collapse. Over the summer, however, she recuperated and returned to Wellesley in the fall. For her junior year she transferred to the University of Wisconsin, and in the fall of 1892, she moved once more—to the newly opened Stanford University, where she graduated as a zoology major in the spring of 1893.

Mosher’s westward migration is intriguing. California was about as far away from home as she could get, but by 1892 her parents were both encouraging her work. Perhaps it was the very newness of Stanford and California’s persisting image as frontier that drew her west. During her time at Wisconsin, Mosher had begun to think of her own interests as being on the frontiers of science. By the time she arrived at Stanford she had decided on her mission—she was determined to challenge every existing stereotype about the physical incapacities of women. Her journals give no clue as to how she arrived at this decision. Except for the novels of George Sand, she never mentioned reading feminist literature or being formally involved in the growing feminist movement. She was certainly aware, however, that she herself had discredited her doctor-father’s dire predictions of her physical and mental collapse. She also may have been as startled as current readers by the response to her survey of women’s sexual habits, which she had begun at Wisconsin.

After graduation Mosher remained at Stanford as an assistant in hygiene, a position that required her to take measurements of all incoming female freshmen. Her observations suggested a myth ripe for debunking: nearly every physiology text claimed that women breathed costally (using only the upper chest) because of the physiological requirements of pregnancy, while men breathed diaphragmatically (using the diaphragm). While admitting that most women did breathe costally, Mosher denied that physiology demanded it. She was certain that constrictive clothing and sedentary living were responsible. Setting up elaborate measuring devices in the gymnasium, she examined Stanford co-eds as well as unmarried, pregnant girls from the Pacific Rescue Home. Mosher concluded that the only differences between the sexes in breathing were those imposed by fashion and habit. In 1894 she presented these findings for her master’s degree from Stanford. Two years later, her thesis was corroborated by G. W. Fitz at Harvard.