Clelia Duel Mosher, M.D. was born on December 16, 1863 in Albany, New York. In 1900, she became one of the very first female physicians in America when she graduated from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. In 1910, she became a professor at Stanford University where her early 1900s research dispelled myths about women’s physiological inferiority to men. She conducted the first-ever American study on Victorian women’s sexuality which was published posthumously in its entirety in 1980. Dr. Mosher died on December 21, 1940 in Palo Alto, California at the age of 77.
Early Life and Career
Mosher’s fascination with human physiology started at an early age under her father Dr. Cornelius Mosher’s tutelage. He was particularly unusual compared to most men of his time because he had a clear respect for women’s education and encouraged his daughter to read literary works, attend theatrical performances, and explore her interest in botany in a little greenhouse attached to their house which became her very own “educational laboratory.” Mosher was a sickly child who battled tuberculosis, and her father did not want her to attend college for fear of complicating her health problems. Despite her father's wishes, she saved her earnings from working as a horticulturist to pay for college tuition, and eventually enrolled at Wellesley College as a 25-year-old freshman in 1889. She later transferred to the University of Wisconsin (where she began her first sex surveys) and finished up her physiology bachelor’s and master’s work at Stanford University in 1893 and 1894 while working in the girls’ gymnasium. Mosher became one of the first American female medical doctors when she graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1900. After working in private practice, she was as a professor of hygiene at Stanford from 1910 to 1929.
Mosher dispelled myths about women’s “natural” inferiority to men. Her master’s research at Stanford confirmed that women, just like men, breathe from the diaphragm. She subsequently concluded that women’s supposed “monthly disability” was due to constrictive clothing, inactivity, and the general assumption that pain was an inevitable accompaniment to menstruation. She even invented a set of exercises, commonly known as “Moshering,” to counteract menstrual pain and improve women’s health. Overall, her research supported women’s exercise, the abandonment of restrictive corsets, and an overall cultural shift toward women’s empowerment.
The First Ever American Sex Survey
Perhaps the most fascinating part of Mosher’s research is a survey she conducted on Victorian women’s sex lives from 1892 to 1920. She interviewed 45 women about their sexual attitudes and practices—and this was the very first time any scientific researcher had done so. From her research, she concluded that 78 percent of the women she interviewed felt desire for sexual intercourse independent of their husband’s interest while 76 percent of them experienced vaginal orgasms and 36 percent said they “always” or “usually” had them during sexual intercourse. Mosher also found that 53 percent of the women thought that the purpose of sex was pleasure for both men and women (only one thought sex was exclusively a male pleasure), and 84 percent used at least one method of fertility control (withdrawal, rhythm method, or a device such as a cervical cap).
Mosher’s findings highlighted the idea that these women did not match the stereotype of the sexually repressed Victorian. In fact, historian Carl Degler – who fortuitously happened upon Mosher’s sex surveys over 30 years after her death and rescued the forgotten file from the Stanford archives – noted that sexual expression was both common and enjoyable for these Victorians.
As a professor, Mosher was a role model and confidante to her young female students. She was also a devoted humanitarian who served in the American Red Cross in France during World War I, and helped to relocate refugees (primarily mothers and children) from 1917 to 1919. Her colleagues described her as particularly well-suited to this position because of her sympathetic and thoughtful approach to human problems and her delicate ability to navigate cultural differences with poise. During the limited personal leave time she was granted from her official post, she worked as a mail clerk because she hated to see the look of despair in the eyes of soldiers who had yet to receive belated packages and letters from their loved ones.
Personal Life & Legacy
Mosher never married and she bore no children, but she was incredibly close to her parents. A dedicated writer and horticulturist, she was a creative and imaginative person who enjoyed journaling and even wrote a romance novel after her retirement from academia (though it was never published). She has been described as strong, sincere, assertive, independent, as well as eccentric and non-conformist. Her unconventional clothing style reflected her research that proved that lighter and looser clothing was best for women’s mobility and health.
Driven by her intellectual pursuits and a desire to understand women’s health and sexuality, Mosher was a passionate and dedicated researcher. Degler wrote in his introduction to The Mosher Survey: Sexual Attitudes of 45 Victorian Women: “Behind her vigorous exterior, contemporaries remember her purposeful stride…her relentless commitment to her research,” and “her willingness to confront systematically the role of sexuality in women.”
As one of the few women in her field with a feminist research focus, Mosher was a bit of an academic loner. In a 1919 diary entry, Mosher wrote: “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 so 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." Fortunately, Mosher had a very close relationship with her mentor Mary Roberts Coolidge and many of her students. It is clear that she was ultimately a content person because she titled her unpublished 1931 book, The Autobiography of a Happy Old Woman. Following her retirement in 1929, she devoted herself to her garden and she lived alone until her death in Santa Clara, California on December 21, 1940, just five days after her 77th birthday. She is buried next to her parents in Albany Rural Cemetery in New York.
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