June/july 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 4
The sexual habits of American women, examined half a century before Kinsey
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.
Having vanquished one myth, Mosher turned to “functional periodicity,” the allegedly insurmountable barrier that excluded women from the working world. The bias she was working against was formidable; one writer of the time described menstruation as “a constantly recurring infirmity that occupies seven years out of thirty of a woman’s adult life.” That view was a common one, but Mosher noted that most of the grim literature on female physiology sprang from male experience with pathological female patients. She decided to study healthy women, in order to determine what normal menstruation was, what factors made it abnormal, and whether these factors could be modified. She devised a detailed questionnaire that she gave to her women students, who began to keep careful monthly records.
Mosher soon realized that she was in over her head. If her work was to have credibility, and if she was to interpret her vast mass of data accurately, she would need training in medicine. In the spring of 1896, at age thirty-two, she applied to and was accepted by the recently opened Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Borrowing money from her widowed mother, Mosher headed for Baltimore in the fall of 1896 to become one of thirteen women in a class of forty-one.
At Hopkins, Mosher later wrote, she found both sympathy for her interest in women’s physiology and respect for the women students. She also found a female support network in operation. Gertrude Stein, who entered the medical school the year after Mosher (but never graduated), recalled that such formidable women as M. Carey Thomas, the president of Bryn Mawr, and other members of the Women’s Medical Fund, which had been instrumental in opening the school to women, would visit the women students over tea, urging them to study hard and not to disgrace themselves, their gender, or the fund.
The faculty evidently thought well of Mosher, and upon graduation, at age thirty-six, she was selected for a one-year externship in the dispensary at the Hopkins Hospital. Dr. Howard Kelly also selected her to serve as gynecological assistant in his sanitorium. Mosher thought she knew what had brought her to the administration’s attention. Early in 1900 George Engleman, a Boston gynecologist, learned of the menstrual records she had collected at Stanford. He wanted the data and tried through a colleague at Hopkins “to put the screws on Miss Mosher” so he could get her records. The colleague ignored him. Finally Engleman wrote directly to Mosher, asking to have the records but adding, “If you wish to utilize your observations for any special purpose, I should ask at least to give me general results.” Mosher certainly did wish to utilize her observations; she held her ground and refused to relinquish her data. The incident may have prompted her lifelong protectiveness of her research, but it also brought her work to the attention of the Hopkins authorities and, she believed, resulted in the appointments.
During her additional year at Hopkins, Clelia Mosher began to analyze the data that Engleman had sought, which included menstrual records of over four hundred healthy women, plus physical examinations. Her preliminary findings led to her first scientific publication, “Normal Menstruation and Some of the Factors Modifying It,” in the Johns Hopkins Hospital Bulletin . In this paper she tentatively identified four factors contributing to monthly disability: constricting clothing, inactivity, chronic constipation, and the general expectation that discomfort was inevitable. Each of these, she noted severely, was reversible and not physiological.
At the end of the year Kelly offered Mosher a permanent position in the gynecology department. Would she, she asked, be trained as a gynecological surgeon? Kelly said he would train her, but he doubted whether any man would be willing to work under a woman. Mosher declined the offer. Instead, she returned to California, taking her mother with her, and opened a private practice in PaIo Alto. Once settled, she took up gardening with a passion. The skill that had paid her way to college now became her chief recreation. From her lush descriptions of each new leaf, bulging seed pod, and vanquished fungus, it is clear that the emotional investment in her garden was enormous. Outside her work, her garden was to become her chief solace.
After opening her practice, Mosher embarked on a long round of grant applications, seeking funds for her menstruation studies. All the institutions to which she applied rejected her. Her research stood still for nearly a decade, to her intense frustration. So when an opportunity arose in 1910 to return to Stanford as assistant professor of personal hygiene and medical adviser for women, she jumped at it. Back in a university, with well-equipped laboratories and an abundant supply of subjects, Mosher resumed her studies and, within the year, published her first major article on menstruation. Further research had confirmed her earlier findings; there was no physiological reason why most normal, healthy women should be incapacitated by menstruation.
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.
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.
She sought the information so that she could better advise young women who came to her for help. Unmarried herself, but justifiably suspicious of material in marriage manuals written mostly by men, she was certain that married women themselves would be the best source of accurate information. In the brief introduction she says the survey gave “the investigator a priceless knowledge for the practicing physician and teacher; a background sufficiently broad to avoid prejudice in her work with woman.”
The material gives no clues as to who these women were or how she chose them. Undoubtedly some simply refused to answer such personal questions, so in this sense Mosher’s subjects, like Kinsey’s and Bite’s, were self-selected. Not all of them answered the questionnaires at the same time. Of the thirty-six which are dated, seventeen were completed prior to 1900, fourteen between 1913 and 1917, and five in 1920. Only one respondent was born after 1890. Thirty-three were, like Mosher, born before 1870, and of these seventeen were born before the Civil War. These, then, were largely women who grew up, married, and raised children in the nineteenth century.
Fortunately Mosher asked her subjects enough questions about place of birth and education to permit speculation about their social origins. Geographically, the women were fairly representative of late-nineteenth-century America. Educationally, they decidedly were not. Eighty-one per cent of those whose education is given had attended college or normal school, and the remainder had attended at least secondary school—this at a time when most people, male or female, did not even attend secondary school. Their alma maters included Cornell, Smith, Wellesley, Vassar, Radcliffe, Stanford, and the University of California. Most of the women were married to college graduates.
When asked about their work experience before marriage (Mosher assumed none worked after), thirty of the thirty-eight women who responded had worked. Not surprisingly, in view of the limited job opportunities open to women at that time, twenty-seven had been teachers. (The other three were a librarian, an accountant, and a bookbinder. ) These women were principally daughters of the upper-middle class.
The nine-page questionnaire that confronted Mosher’s subjects contained twenty-five multi-part questions, many of which sought genealogical and medical information, such as whether the respondent’s husband smoked, whether her mother found menopause difficult, and whether her grandparents were native-born. The second half of the survey, however, turned to matters of sex. Many questions required only a simple yes or no, but many women were moved to add comments providing detailed glimpses into their intimate lives—and what emerges is a study of the Victorian “marriage relation. ” Mosher was no doubt correct in claiming that such detail could only have been elicited by another woman.
The first of the sex questions asked, “What knowledge of sexual physiology had you before marriage? How did you obtain it?” Eleven women claimed they knew a great deal about sex before marriage. They had learned it, they wrote, from books, courses, friends, and relatives. One woman learned the facts of life from “medical texts, watching farm animals, and also from very frank talks with my mother.” Thirteen said they had some knowledge of sex. Declining to give her sources, one woman added defensively, “learned everything I knew from good sources and in a pure and sacred way. ” The majority, however, said that they had known little or nothing: “Not one thing,” said one woman emphatically. Another admitted, “I was so innocent of the matter that until I was 18,1 did not know the origin of babies.”
How did these naive Victorians fare in marriage? Mosher began her probe by asking them whether they “habitually” shared a bed with their husbands. About two-thirds of these women, some married as long as twenty-eight years, did sleep with their spouses. Some did so enthusiastically: “The first year I had separate beds, believing that was the right thing. I abandoned it entirely before the end of the year.” One wife did so “because I like to be near him,” and, she added, for “economic reasons.” Some did so reluctantly: “Personally, I prefer to sleep alone always. ” The remainder slept alone. One woman listed three reasons why she preferred that arrangement: “1. more comfortable, 2. more wholesome, 3. to avoid temptation of too frequent intercourse.”
Temptation? The stereotype of the Victorian woman leaves no room for sexual desire. Yet thirty-five of the forty-four women who answered the question said they felt desire for sexual intercourse. Asked at what time of month she most desired intercourse, one woman chided: “It has no time regulation any more than kissing my husband or baby has.” Another woman wrote that sex was not only agreeable to her but “usually quite delightful.”
Even more surprising is these women’s testimony to orgasmic experience. Mosher did not ask whether they ever had an orgasm but “Do you always have a venereal orgasm?”—thus assuming that orgasm was to be expected. While a few women did not answer and five wrote only “no,” leaving open the possibility that they occasionally experienced orgasm, thirty-four women indicated that they did experience it.
From these answers, Mosher concluded that one source of sexual maladjustment in marriage might occur at first intercourse. Coming to marriage so innocent of sexual matters, misunderstandings were bound to occur. One problem, she believed, might be “physical terror though mental consent.” Indeed, one woman reported that the sudden introduction to sex was such a shock that she “ran away after one month of marriage. [Was] sent back by parents and told to behave.” Apparently as an afterthought, Mosher asked twelve women how many days after their wedding ceremony had first intercourse taken place. Six women said that first intercourse took place within the first three days; one said “immediately.” Six said from ten days to one year after the ceremony.
Mosher also recognized that women’s slower sexual reaction time could lead to maladjustment if not understood. Some of her subjects recognized it, too. One woman reported that for years sex had been distasteful to her because of her “slow reaction,” but “orgasm [occurs] if time is taken.” Another, referring to differences in reaction time, complained, “Men have not been properly trained.” For some, failure to reach orgasm was devastating. The woman cognizant of her “slow reaction” reported, “When no orgasm, takes days to recover.” Another described the absence of orgasm as “bad, even disastrous, nervewracking,—unbalancing, if such conditions continued for any length of time.” One woman said its absence was “depressing and revolting,” and described orgasm, which she almost always reached, as a “sense of absolute physical harmony.” Others spoke of the “quiet” and “calmness” which followed. One woman described it as a “general sense of well being, contentment, and regard for husband.” “This is true, Doctor,” she added earnestly.
The most detailed and personal responses were elicited by a series of questions on the “true purpose of intercourse.” Mosher asked whether intercourse was a necessity, or whether its purpose was pleasure, reproduction, or “other.” (Under “other,” one woman claimed, “I have taken it as a sedative.”) Of those who responded, nine believed that intercourse was a necessity for men; thirteen claimed it was a necessity for both sexes; and the remaining fifteen believed it was a necessity to neither. Though a few women felt that reproduction was the only acceptable reason for intercourse, and thirty marked reproduction as the primary purpose, twenty-four women believed firmly that the pleasure exchanged was a worthy purpose in itself. One young wife who checked both pleasure and reproduction said, “It sweeps you out of everything that is everyday.” Another woman, married thirty years, claimed it “makes more normal people.” This woman wasn’t even sure that children were necessary to justify intercourse: “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.” Still another woman argued that intercourse should be indulged in for more than offspring: “The act is frequently simply the extreme caress of love’s passion, which it would be a pity to limit… to once in two or three years.”
Since so many women believed that pleasure alone was a legitimate reason for intercourse, Mosher suspected that they must use some sort of contraceptive and she included a question on this subject. At least thirty women used some method of birth control. Even a mother who declared that marriage without desire for children amounted to legalized prostitution practiced withdrawal. Still, she probably would have disapproved strongly of the young wife, married one year, who had no children and, by using “clear water in a syringe,” obviously hoped to remain childless, at least for a while. Withdrawal and “timing” ranked high as methods of birth control, but most women preferred douching. Hot water, ice water, tepid water, alcohol, sulphate of zinc, and carbonated water had their adherents. Several women’s husbands used a “male sheath.” Two women used a “rubber cap over the uterus,” and one woman used cocoa butter—for what, she didn’t say.
While most of the women Mosher surveyed found sexual expression to be normal and natural, sometimes even a joy, not all were free of guilt. One woman, who admitted she desired intercourse and experienced orgasm, noted that sexual relations were “apparently a necessity for the average person”; and “superior individuals,” with whom she felt she could not be classed, could be “independent of sex relations with no evident ill results.” Even more revealing was the young woman, married only a year, who wrote, “As I personally see it, I think a habit of intercourse once a month if both desire would be as much of an ideal as I now have.” She crossed this out, however, and wrote beneath it, “Since writing the above, I have become convinced that the ideal would be to have no intercourse except for reproduction, but it is often hard to live up to such an ideal.”
Mosher’s own views on the matter of guilt are suggested in her brief conclusions. She was convinced that women had every right to experience and expect pleasure from sex, and she had little patience with marital guides that advised them otherwise. Blaming such misinformation for some women’s failure to adjust to marriage, she charged that “too often her training has instilled the idea that any physical response is coarse, common and immodest.…”
The final question which faced each subject asked, “What, to you, would be the ideal habit?” Mosher had asked earlier about their actual habits of intercourse, so any discrepancies are visible. One woman’s ideal was “once a month, when both are well . and in the day light.” In reality, this woman reported having intercourse three or four times a week and found it “delightful.” One forty-seven-year-old woman said that her ideal was: “Now, at my time of life, never. In the prime of life, for a man twice a week, for a woman twice a month.” How a husband and wife were to resolve this discrepancy wasn’t stated. Another older woman also said that her ideal was no intercourse at all, and claimed that even as a young woman she tried to avoid it. She was, perhaps understandably, hostile to intercourse: early in her marriage, her doctor husband had become addicted to morphine and, when under its influence, had forced her to have intercourse at least once a night.
Several postmenopausal women still enjoyed and desired intercourse. The only respondent who was divorced and remarried testified in 1913, at age fifty-three, four years after menopause, that “although my passionate feeling has declined somewhat and the orgasm does not always occur, intercourse is still agreeable to me. ” Remarried at age forty-six to an “unusually considerate man,” this very happy, childless woman advocated an ideal habit of “perhaps twice a month.”
Clelia Mosher demonstrated in her small, pioneering survey that despite the conflicting warnings of the marriage manuals of the Victorian age, most of the women she studied engaged in sex with neither reluctance nor distaste. Indeed, many of them frankly acknowledged their desire for intercourse and orgasm. In the face of their disregard of the repressive sexual code of their era, as Degler noted, these women offer encouraging proof of humankind’s essential common sense.
For her own part Clelia Mosher paid a price for her advanced views. That price was intense loneliness, particularly after her mother died. The personal papers that exist from her years of middle age reveal an introspective and pathetically lonely woman. She was caught between the practical nature of her work and an extreme romanticism that she carefully concealed. The same woman who marched resolutely across the Stanford campus, with perfect posture and sensible clothing, had sentimental dreams and fears that she poured out into a notebook. She wrote longingly of the friendships which sustained other women. There was a type of platonic friendship, she believed, that “supplies the working woman and compensates her for what she has missed in not marrying but cannot make up for her lost motherhood. ” Perhaps because of the intensity of her late-blooming career, Mosher had no such friend, and as she grew older she felt this lack more keenly.
At age fifty-two she wrote poignantly: “I am finding out gradually why I am so lonely. The only things I care about are things which use my brain. The women I meet are not much interested and I do not meet many men, so there is an intellectual solitude which is like the solitude of the desert—dangerous to one’s sanity.”
Her yearning becomes increasingly forlorn: “I think sometimes of some particular friend and I feel she understands as no one else does what is in my mind … then some day comes when I realize that what this friend is, does, feels is utterly foreign. I have imbued her with thoughts that have been in my mind, not hers, sympathies which have grown out of my desire for understanding … and with deep depression I realize she is the outward semblance of a creature of my imagination.”
A series of increasingly intimate letters suggests that Mosher finally discovered the friend she longed for. The painful truth, however, slowly dawns—these letters were written to no one. All doubts disappear in March, 1919, when Mosher begins to address them “To you, my friend who does not exist.”
Over the next few years, this invented companion became the only ear for Mosher’s troubles. The letters are filled with her quotidian difficulties, as well as her meditations and imaginative—and sensual—descriptions of nature. The letters make it clear that Mosher knew what she was doing. She even admitted to feeling self-conscious about the “correspondence,” but stated frankly, “I get a sense of companionship and you are spared the boredom of reading them. ”
On April 16,1926, she wrote her “friend”: “I have given up ever finding you. I have tried out all my friends and they have not measured up to my dreams. They still are friends, and their friendships give joy and richness to my life but I cannot share my dreamland with them. I wander alone there and show the world my prose, my common sense. But I keep normal and wholesome by going ever alone in this land of dreams. It would not take long to be as drab as most of my contemporaries were it not for this land of dreams.”
By 1926 Mosher seems to have resolved many of her problems. As retirement approached, she threw herself into the project of her dream house, which was a “thrill and joy” for her. She had hopes that its peace and beauty, and her happiness there, would inspire young women who needed help in holding on to their intellectual aspirations.
In October of 1926, contemplating moving in, she looked forward with hope: “Can one go on being a balanced, sane person with only the casual companionship of one’s acquaintances, or is a certain give and take of daily companionship necessary to keep one at one’s best: Who knows? Anyway, I am going to try it.… I look forward joyously to my solitary future, rich in the beauty of my surroundings.”
On the whole, Mosher seems to have resolved her problems. Her papers from 1932 include the beginning of an autobiography to be called The Autobiography of a Happy Old Woman . In that year, too, she wrote a joyful and lyrical description of the special beauty of that California spring.
The wide gulf between Clelia Mosher’s inner self and the face she presented to the world is striking. The lonely romantic of these letters is the same efficient, dedicated woman who, as doctor and researcher, pioneered the destruction of sexual myths, celebrated the emotional and physical strength of women, and left us with a remarkable survey of Victorian sexuality.