Why you should care
Because this woman was scientifically racy.
We usually think of imaginary friends as childish, but in the early 1900s, a brainy middle-aged woman found an imaginary friend to be her sanity’s salvation. In letters addressed simply, “To you, my friend who does not exist,” she spelled out the solitude of a life devoted to study. “I am finding out gradually why I am so lonely. The only things I care about are things which use my brain,” she wrote. But shockingly, at least for the Victorian era, this unmarried, childless woman was no prude.
No, she wasn’t sleeping around. But Clelia Duel Mosher studied the physical intimacy she never had, penetrating the sciences related to sexuality long before Dr. Alfred Kinsey. Victorian bonnets likely flew off when this daughter of a physician — who went on to become a physician herself and a champion for women’s health — asked private questions like “Do you habitually sleep with your husband?” and “Do you always have a venereal orgasm?” Her survey of 47 women, which began in 1892 as an undergrad, spanned her career, culminating in the scientific report, “Statistical Survey of the Marriages of Forty-Seven Women.” Undiscovered until the 1970s, this study offers a one-of-a-kind look into the bedroom lives of women born before the U.S. Civil War. “It’s tremendously important,” Kathryn Jacob, curator of manuscripts at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, says. “It has really changed the way scholars and anyone interested in the Victorian era view women’s take on sexuality.”
Am I not to have any more fun in bed?
While sex was prudishly discussed at the time, if at all — “Victorian morals” preached sexual restraint — the answers Mosher found were a whole lot more exciting than you’d expect, thanks to the subjects’ anonymity. One woman said she felt “very sleepy and comfy, with none of the disgust as I have heard it described” after sex. Another loved weekly sex as it had, she wrote, “a higher purpose than physical enjoyment. Simply sweeps you out of everything that is commonplace and everyday. A strength to go on.” Queen Victoria herself was famous for saying, when told that she shouldn’t have more pregnancies, “Am I not to have any more fun in bed?”
And yet, Mosher, who enjoyed a long career, nearly didn’t make it to college because her father deemed her too weak for higher education. No wilting flower, she turned a horticultural hobby into a business and earned the tuition money to put herself through Wellesley (later transferring to the University of Wisconsin and Stanford). Eventually, she attended Johns Hopkins Medical School, earning her M.D., and taught at Stanford as an assistant professor of personal hygiene. In her spare time, though, she let her mind roam in the gutter.
Mosher conducted written sex surveys and made a name for herself by studying women’s strength and menstruation cycles. She upended stereotypes that women couldn’t breathe from their diaphragm or be as physically strong as men, arguing instead that women were restricted and weakened by their clothing, namely corsets. She even created “Moshers,” an abdominal exercise to ward off menstrual pain so women could be more productive in the workplace (lie on your back, ladies, and breathe from your stomach eight to 10 times night and day).
Her work, which posited that female differences had more to do with expectations than physiology, came at the right time: Men had been drafted into war in the 1910s, leaving women to take their jobs, and the cult of domesticity began to shrink. The newspapers picked up on Mosher’s studies and ran with them, albeit in a somewhat sexist and jarring way. “When women put up their hair they develop the deltoid muscles, so that science believes all of women’s muscles could with training like man’s become as strong as his,” the San Diego Union published. And her work was used to uphold the practice of women playing basketball, according to one reporter’s syndicated column in publications like the Idaho Times and Richmond Times. “[G]irls who refuse to be considered ‘delicate’ at regular intervals maintain the best health records,” the reporter wrote, citing Mosher.
Unsurprisingly, Mosher’s notoriety also put a target on her back. On Stanford’s campus, she traipsed about in unfeminine clothing — a “shirtwaist dress, starched collar, four-in-hand tie and untrimmed round hat,” Jacob says, noting how Mosher was “always erect.” One competitor, George Engelmann, tried to take Mosher’s data on menstruation so he could publish a paper from her findings. “If you wish to utilize your observations for any special purpose, I should ask at least to give me general results,” he wrote, as if it were a small request. Mosher refused.
Of course, some of Mosher’s findings, like ones about women’s strength in comparison to men’s, have been disproven since her death in 1940 at age 77. And her sexual survey was far from “representative,” Jacob says — the sample size was small and skewed toward the educated elite, with her respondents presumed to be the wives of her colleagues. And she wasn’t saying anything people didn’t already know about women’s potential in the workplace, seeing as lower-class women had long worked full days in factories and as rural laborers.
Still, the doctor was impressively ahead of her time, asking questions of women that male doctors couldn’t or didn’t dare. Even if it meant foregoing a racy sex life for herself.