The Mosher Report


One of the loose ends Mosher had tied up before leaving for France was an article on the muscular strength of women. Of this research, she enthusiastically noted: “It looks as though we have proved that there is no inherent difference in muscular strength between men and women due to differences in sex. Another tradition destroyed, and new freedom for women—.” The article, published jointly with Ernest Martin, a Stanford physiologist, appeared while Mosher was in Paris. In it she pointed out that, because of the war, women everywhere were performing tasks previously believed unsuitable for creatures of their delicacy. Clearly these beliefs needed re-examination. Their own research, the authors claimed—overconf idently—proved that there were no physiological differences in the strength of women and men. Rather, they said, existing differences resulted from the different ways in which boys and girls were raised.

Returning to Stanford after the Armistice, Mosher was promoted to associate professor of hygiene but went through a rather difficult period. Her mother was failing, she had disagreements with a new administration, and she found her life monotonous and harassed: “The fates are still throwing dice for my future.… My garden cries aloud for care and I long with unutterable longing to dig and trim in it and then to come to my study and dig and work on my problem while my soul as well as my body grows strong and quiet and all the turmoil of these over busy years quiets down and I get perspective in regard to it all.…

“I must reap my intellectual harvest, now ripe and waiting. I have something to contribute and the time is ripe for its reception. Something to give to the question of woman.”

In 1923 her second book, Woman’s Physical Freedom , appeared. This time she dealt not only with young women but also with middle-aged women who approached menopause with terror, anticipating incapacity and even insanity. Much of the problem with menopause, Mosher suggested, was not physiological but psychological, rooted in the social changes that accompany middle life (such as children leaving home, which might make a wife and mother feel superfluous). Professional women, she believed, suffered far less. As an antidote, she prescribed political, church, and community work for the woman whose child-rearing days were ending.

With Woman’s Physical Freedom Mosher began to enjoy a much wider audience. After the book went into its sixth printing and clippings began to come in from all over the world, Stanford promoted her to full professor, a position that she held for one year. She retired in 1929, after two fruitful decades of research and teaching, to a “dream house” of her own design. The door to her new home, she assured her students, was always open.

Her papers indicate that many of them accepted this invitation. Until her death in 1940 students often returned to thank her for her advice and to tell her that they were sharing her ideals with their friends and daughters.

Clelia Mosher died without publishing what will undoubtedly be remembered as her most innovative and interesting work—the remarkable sex survey that caused a furor among historians and psychologists when Carl Degler introduced it in his 1974 article for The American Historical Review .

This survey, bound into volume ten of her unpublished works and entitled “Statistical Survey of the Marriages of Forty-Seven Women,” is important because it is the only such survey known to exist. While dozens of popular authors claimed to be experts on women and sex, no one had studied the subject in a systematic and objective way. Mosher did. Certainly her subjects do not represent a statistically significant sample of Victorian women. But their responses are often quite detailed and thus shed light on the question of how one group of women, in the face of conflicting and repressive notions about female sexuality, actually thought and acted.

The first data go back to 1892. In her brief introduction to the survey, Mosher explained that she designed the questionnaire when, as a junior at the University of Wisconsin, she was asked to discuss the “marital relation” before the Mothers Club. Her lecture was based on forms returned by the club members, who were mostly faculty wives. (That these women agreed to fill out such a revealing questionnaire is intriguing, but no more so than the puzzle of why they asked an unmarried college girl, even one of twenty-eight, to address them about marriage in the first place.) Mosher continued the survey sporadically for nearly thirty years after leaving Wisconsin, adding the responses of women from her private practice and from Stanford.