Dr. Clelia Duel Mosher: Women’s Sexuality & Equal Rights Advocate

Image provided by the    Stanford University Libraries   .

Image provided by the Stanford University Libraries.

Her studies in female sexuality predated Kinsey’s by over 50 years

Dr. Clelia Duel Mosher was born on December 16, 1863 in Albany, New York to Cornelius Duel Mosher, M.D. and Sarah Burritt Mosher. Clelia idolized her father, who gave her a taste for medicine at a young age, taking her on his medical rounds and teaching her about literature and botany.

After a childhood punctuated by illness, Mosher enrolled at Wellesley College in 1889 at the age of 25. She transferred in her junior year to the University of Wisconsin, and in her senior year to Stanford University.

It was at Stanford she received an A.B. in zoology in 1893 and an A.M. in physiology in 1894 while teaching health, physiology, and exercise to female students as an assistant in the department of hygiene. Mosher then went on to graduate with an M.D. from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1900.

Studies in Female Sexuality

In 1892 while a 28-year-old biology student at the University of Wisconsin, Mosher developed, administered, and collected data for a survey noting the sexual habits and attitudes of a group of women born prior to 1890. The survey recorded information on women’s sexual appetites, habits, and thoughts on contraception, children, the effect of menopause on desire, as well as spousal relationships.

She continued with the survey for over 20 years, amassing 47 profiles in all, but never published the results.

This survey long preceded the 1947 and 1953 Kinsey Reports, and is considered a pioneering effort in assessing nineteenth-century women's sexuality.

Woman as Man’s Equal

While at Stanford studying physiology, Mosher had access to a steady supply of young female research subjects. As Kara Platoni of Stanford Magazine notes, her “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”.

At the time, people believed that men breathed from the diaphragm and women from the chest. In her master’s thesis, Mosher debunked this “biological difference”, arguing that women too breathe from the diaphragm, the popular misconception a result of tight corsetry.

She believed women’s garments in general were debilitating. In her paper “Strength of Women”, published in 1920, she wrote:

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.

Mosher also worked to debunk the idea that menstruation debilitated women, known as “functional periodicity”. Mosher began to analyze her data on menstruation while at Johns Hopkins, claiming painful menstruation was due to nurture—not nature—citing poor muscular development due to inactivity, as well as the idea of “inevitable illness” and subsequent bedrest.

She believed women should stay active throughout their periods, inventing abdominal exercises, dubbed “moshers”, to counteract menstrual pain. “Equal pay for women means equal work; unnecessary menstrual absences mean less than full work.”

Glimpsing a Feminist Future

Mosher was a trailblazer for female scientific researchers and predicted a more level playing field for them in the future. She wrote in 1923, “Born into a world of unlimited opportunity, the woman of the rising generation will answer the question of what woman’s real capacities are…She will have physical, economic, racial and civic freedom. What will she do with it?”

This story was made possible by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

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Alicia Lazzaro