I recently saw an article about the work of Dr Clelia Mosher in the Stanford Alumni Magazine and I was quite surprised that I hadn’t heard of this remarkable woman before. Born in 1863, Mosher was someone who was clearly ahead of her time.
Despite living in an era when women were discouraged from gaining a college education, Mosher was determined to study and used her education to try and dispel certain myths about women’s alleged in-capabilities.
Her Master’s degree thesis went some way towards disproving the common belief that women were inferior to men because they breathed costally. Mosher’s study showed that women could in fact breathe like men; however the popular fashion item of the era, the corset, was heavily responsible for preventing diaphragmatic breathing.
She also did a great deal of research about women’s menstrual cycles and tried fervently to prove that women were not incapacitated during their cycles. She believed that the mentality of the time, which suggested that women who were menstruating should be treated as though sick and unwell and sent to bed to rest was wrong and that women could just as well attend their jobs and be functional whilst menstruating. She revealed unhygienic habits that were often the cause of painful menstruation and developed the ‘Mosher breathing exercise’ to help combat the pain of menstruation. It is believed that she was one of the first American physicians to advocate core-body-strength increasing exercises to help alleviate the pain of menstrual cramps.
But probably her most enlightening and ground-breaking work was the surveys she conducted about the sexual habits of Victorian women. In that era, it was widely thought that women did not enjoy sex and only undertook it as a means of reproduction. However Mosher’s study proved otherwise, the women she interviewed revealed that they did enjoy the act of intercourse and many of them actually used contraception despite the fact that it was illegal in those days. It showed that they viewed it as a way of ‘spiritually connecting’ to their husbands and worried about unwanted pregnancies. Some women who did not enjoy it as much as the others, expressed the belief that their husbands had been badly ‘trained’ and overall there were clear signs that Victorian women desired sex for the pleasure of it too!
Mosher’s sex surveys were not viewed or published during her lifetime, possibly because of the controversy that their findings would have brought the female doctor trying desperately to hold her own in a man’s world. They were discovered in 1973 by historian Carl Degler and it was after he drew attention to them they gained notoriety and were published. It is believed that they were the first of their kind to be carried out.
Despite being well ahead of her years intellectually, Mosher’s work did not get the critical acclaim it deserved during her lifespan. Her life was a solitary one and she struggled to form bonds with the other people around her, resorting to writing letters to an “imaginary friend” expressing her disappointment at being unable to find people in her world who understood her.
Kara Platoni who wrote the article about Mosher for the Stanford Magazine said:
“Ultimately, Mosher’s story is deeply ironic: She was a staunch feminist who remained aloof from sisterhood, a woman who rigorously researched sexuality and marriage yet probably experienced neither, a pioneering scholar who longed for recognition but did not live to enjoy it. Today there is an often well-rewarded place in our society for awkward overachievers, but Mosher struggled her entire life with her ungainly intellect and with being a woman in a man’s research world.”
The Sex Scholar (Via Stanford Alumni)