Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Clelia Duel Mosher

The Stanford University magazine has a really fascinating article about Dr Clelia Duel Mosher, a woman who taught in the Hygiene Department of that university in the early 20th century. Dr Mosher undertook extensive research regarding the attitude of women to sex and relationships that predated work by Kinsey, as well as groundbreaking work in the area of female biology. The article also talks about the rediscovery in the 1970s of surveys Dr Mosher conducted of women regarding sex and relationships.
The survey's genesis—like its rediscovery—was a fortuitous accident. Mosher started it in 1892 as a 28-year-old biology undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin; she had been asked to address a local Mother's Club on "the marital relation" and as a single, childless woman seems to have used data collection to fill gaps in her knowledge. Afterward, Mosher continued conducting surveys until 1920, using variations on the same form and amassing 45 profiles in all. Yet Mosher never published or drew more than cursory observations from her data. She died in 1940, and the survey was entirely forgotten when Degler unearthed it.

It is the earliest known study of its type, long preceding, for example, the 1947 and 1953 Kinsey Reports, whose oldest female respondents were born in the 1890s. The Mosher Survey recorded not only women's sexual habits and appetites, but also their thinking about spousal relationships, children and contraception. Perhaps, it hinted, Victorian women weren't so Victorian after all.

Indeed, many of the surveyed women were decidedly unshrinking. One, born in 1844, called sex "a normal desire" and observed that "a rational use of it tends to keep people healthier." Offered another, born in 1862, "The highest devotion is based upon it, a very beautiful thing, and I am glad nature gave it to us."

Of those surveyed, 34 had attended a university or teachers' college. Nine were Stanford alumnae, six from Cornell; other alma maters included Wellesley, Vassar and the University of California. Thirty respondents had worked before marriage, mostly as teachers.

Slightly more than half of these educated women claimed to have known nothing of sex prior to marriage; the better informed said they'd gotten their information from books, talks with older women and natural observations like "watching farm animals." Yet no matter how sheltered they'd initially been, these women had—and enjoyed—sex. Of the 45 women, 35 said they desired sex; 34 said they had experienced orgasms; 24 felt that pleasure for both sexes was a reason for intercourse; and about three-quarters of them engaged in it at least once a week.

Unlike Mosher's other work, the survey is more qualitative than quantitative, featuring open-ended questions probing feelings and experiences. "She's actually asking these questions not about physiology or mechanics—she's really asking about sexual subjectivity and the meaning of sex to women," Freedman says. Their responses were often mixed. Some enjoyed sex but worried that they shouldn't. One slept apart from her husband "to avoid temptation of too frequent intercourse." Some didn't enjoy sex but faulted their partner. Mosher writes: [She] "Thinks men have not been properly trained."

Their responses reflected the cultural shifts of the late 19th century, as marriage became viewed as a romantic union, not just an economic one, and as people began to dissociate sex from procreation, says Freedman. One woman, born in 1867, wrote that before marriage she believed sex to be only for reproduction, but later changed her mind: "In my experience the habitual bodily expression of love has a deep psychological effect in making possible complete mental sympathy & perfecting the spiritual union that must be the lasting 'marriage' after the passion of love has passed away with the years." Wrote another, born in 1863, "It seems to me to be a natural and physical sign of a spiritual union, a renewal of the marriage vows."

Anxieties about unwanted pregnancies are also clear. This was a hot topic during the 19th century, when the marital fertility rate fell by half despite the criminalization of abortion and contraception, Freedman says. At least 30 respondents reported attempting birth control anyway. Many mentioned using douching, withdrawal or the rhythm method; a few had tried a "womb veil" or male condoms.

Mosher herself was born in 1863 and had an interesting life. In terms of her work:
Thanks to a steady supply of young female research subjects, Mosher's scholarly aim soon became clear: to prove that women were not inferior to men, and that frailties chalked up to sex were really the effects of binding garments, insufficient exercise and mental conditioning. Her master's thesis, for example, showed that women breathe from the diaphragm, as men do, rather than from the chest, as was believed at the time. She concluded that this so-called biological difference was really due to tight corsetry.

She also began tracking students' menstrual periods, hoping to upend "functional periodicity," the idea that menstruation debilitated women. It was a canny subject choice for an ambitious female investigator. "That was not research that men could do easily, so she definitely claimed an area that was not accessible to men for her own research," says Elizabeth Griego, who wrote her 1983 dissertation on Mosher for an education doctorate at UC-Berkeley and spent most of the early 1980s in the Stanford archives sifting through Mosher's papers. (Griego is now vice president for student life at the University of the Pacific.)

But it wasn't until after 1896, when Mosher had moved on to Johns Hopkins to obtain her MD, that she analyzed her data. Again, she blamed nurture over nature: Painful menstruation, she concluded, was in most cases caused by inactivity, poor muscular development and the very idea of "inevitable illness." Sending girls to bed to dwell upon their discomfort, Mosher wrote, "produce[s] a morbid attitude and favor[s] the development and exaggeration of whatever symptoms there may be." Mosher was not subtle about her motivation for seeking to discredit functional periodicity. "Equal pay for women means equal work; unnecessary menstrual absences mean less than full work," she wrote. Convinced that women should stay active throughout their periods, Mosher even invented abdominal exercises—dubbed "moshers"—to counteract menstrual pain.

‘The skirt, as modified by the vagaries of fashion, has a direct bearing on the health, development and efficiency of the woman. In 1893-96 I made a series of observations on the clothing of ninety-eight young women. The average width of skirt was then 13.5 feet. The weight of the skirt alone was often as much as the entire weight of the clothing worn by the modern girl.’
–Clelia Mosher, Strength of Women (c. 1920)

By the time Mosher received her MD in 1900, there were approximately 7,000 female doctors and surgeons in the United States (almost 6 percent of the total), but they still faced discrimination. Mosher turned down a job as an assistant to a gynecological surgeon when told that men would refuse to work under her. She returned to Palo Alto and opened a private practice, but struggled to get patient referrals from male colleagues or win grants to fund her menstruation studies. In 1910, Stanford offered her an assistant professorship in personal hygiene as the medical adviser for women, and Mosher eagerly returned to academic life. "I think she started out thinking she would like to be a doctor and perhaps a surgeon, but she found the doors closed to her very quickly," muses Griego.

Instead, Griego says, Mosher found what mattered to her: a living wage, intellectual freedom and access to research subjects. Mosher restarted her menstruation research and completed a study showing that the average height of Stanford's entering female students had increased 1.5 inches in 20 years, a change she attributed to better exercise and comfortable clothing. Mosher became a full professor in 1928, one year before she retired.
The full article is an interesting read and can be found here.

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