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Pioneering professor shed light on Victorian women's most intimate views

A colleague recently drew my attention to a Stanford Magazine profile of Clelia Duel Mosher, MD, a professor who taught in Stanford's hygiene department around the turn of the 20th century. Mosher's scholarly pursuit - "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" - is important in and of itself, but it's her secret side-project that is particularly compelling.

In the late 1890s - during a time when most people didn't openly talk about such things - Mosher quietly surveyed women about their views on sex and intimacy. She found most of the women enjoyed sex (out of 45 surveyed, 35 said they desired sex) and many believed sex was for more than reproduction ("a rational use of it tends to keep people healthier," one woman wrote); writer Kara Platoni called many of the respondents "decidedly unshrinking." The results fly in the face of the stereotype that Victorian women desired and knew little about sex; in other words, as Platoni put it, the survey showed that perhaps "Victorian women weren't so Victorian after all."

Mosher continued conducting her survey, the earliest known study of its type, until 1920 - but she never published or did much with the data. The work was discovered by a Stanford historian in 1973 and written about the next year in American Historical Review; it is now considered an important historic document:

Mosher's survey, says Stanford historian Estelle Freedman, co-author of Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, was "a goldmine" for scholars. In an era when "the public ideal was that women should be very discreet, if not ignorant, about sexuality," says Freedman, Mosher was "asking very modern questions. She's opening up an inquiry about what is the meaning of sexuality for women." Mosher's survey, like her life, gave poignant testimony to the complex desires of women who were caught between traditional feminine norms and 20th-century freedoms.

Photo from Stanford University Archives

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