- Historic Sites
The Mosher Report
The sexual habits of American women, examined half a century before Kinsey
June/july 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 4
She urged women to shed their constricting clothing, to breathe deeply using all their abdominal muscles, to eat sensibly, and above all to cast aside the debilitating myth that menstruation was synonymous with pain and depression. She preached this message to every woman who passed through her classrooms.
Mosher took her own admonitions about sensible dress to heart. Hoping to educate by example, she adopted a simple compromise between fashion and comfort: shirtwaist dress, starched collar, four-in-hand tie, and untrimmed round hat. For the next thirty-five years, styles came and went, but Mosher’s outfit never varied. She was, recalls a former student, “quite a sight,” marching across the campus, always erect, breathing diaphragmatically.
By 1914 Mosher was prepared to offer a practical physiological solution to the problem of painful menstruation. She proposed a simple deep-breathing exercise which, she claimed, would build up weak abdominal muscles and make menstruation less painful. Every Stanford woman was taught the exercise and urged to do it daily. Sixty years later one Stanford student still vividly recalls learning her “Moshers.” Her roommate swore by them; this student believed them to be nonsense. Though many were skeptical, letters from students and gym teachers across the country assured Mosher that “Moshering” worked. Whether or not “Moshers” worked, students testified that much of what they learned in Mosher’s classes profoundly affected their lives. She saw herself as a force for the physical emancipation of women and urged students to understand and appreciate their bodies. Her hygiene classes were spent studying skeletons and anatomical drawings. A colleague said, “[Students] were not sent to bed during the menstrual period but were given gentle, corrective exercises in the mat room of the gymnasium, looked at pictures of Greek women’s statues, read clippings and articles on modern women’s achievements and books on feminism.”
To convince her students that bad posture could create internal problems, and to monitor progress on improving it, Mosher and E. P. Lesley of the engineering department developed a device called a Schematograph. It consisted of a reflecting camera that reduced a person’s shadow and cast it onto graph paper, where it could be traced; this device caught the “posture pictures” of Stanford co-eds each year.
In the spring of 1915 the YWCA invited Mosher to address a national convention of its officers, and the speech was published shortly afterward in book form. In The Relation of Health to the Woman Movement , Mosher combined her growing feminism with her medical research. If women would only liberate themselves from the fickle dictates of fashion, she felt, if they would appreciate and care for their bodies and throw off the hobbling myths of physiological inferiority, theirs would be a glorious future. She concluded, “What we need are women no less fine and womanly, but with beautiful, perfect bodies, a suitable receptacle for their equally beautiful souls, who look sanely out on life with steady nerves and clear vision.”
During the spring of 1917 references to the escalating war in Europe begin to creep into Mosher’s journals. Though fifty-three years old, she was determined to serve. That fall, when a former Hopkins professor visited Stanford, she cornered him and told him of her plan. He passed the word on to a colleague at the Red Cross, and a few days later the reply arrived. Could Mosher be ready to sail in two weeks?
By November 23 she was aboard the Pacific Limited bound for New York. En route she mused in her journal: “The going to France is like the irristable [sic] marching of fate.… Everything in me cried out to do its part in this world catastrophe. I wonder how much the long line of Puritan ancestors who fought for American independence, how much the double strain of Alsatian French counts in this irristable [sic] force, driving me on.…”
Once in France, Mosher became associate medical director of the Bureau of Refugees and Relief, her primary responsibility being to evacuate children from Paris. On one occasion she led a caravan of sixty anemic children from Paris to Evian, a two-day journey. Mosher was deeply moved by the devastation she witnessed, but did not fail to notice that French women were capably replacing their husbands, sons, and brothers in the fields and factories.