Victorian Women Liked Sex, Says Early Survey

Sex scholar Clelia Mosher surveyed women's intimate bedroom secrets.

April 12, 2010— -- Queen Victoria's advice to her generation of seemingly uptight and sexless women was to "close your eyes and think of England," or so the story goes.

Who knew that Victorian women, those born in the mid- to latter-half of the 19th century, actually enjoyed sex and experienced orgasm?

Before Kinsey, before Masters and Johnson, the nation's first "Dr. Ruth" surveyed women born just after the Civil War, painting an intimate portrait that is strikingly at odds with the perception that Victorians were prudes.

Stanford University is celebrating Clelia Mosher, "The Sex Scholar," in the spring issue of its alumni magazine, revealing an early feminist who never reaped the rewards or recognition of her pioneering research.

"She was one of those people we sometimes encounter who seems to have been born at the wrong time," Stanford Magazine editor Kevin Cool said.

"And, of course, the research itself was truly groundbreaking and intrinsically interesting because of its subject matter. Victorian women liked sex."

Mosher conducted her surveys throughout the 1920s but died in 1940 at 77, never publishing her data. It was unearthed accidentally by Stanford historian Carl Degler in 1973, as the feminist movement was gaining ground.

Degler, 89, was in the college archives researching his book, "At Odds, a History of Women and the Family in America From the Revolution to the Present," when he discovered statistics on menstruation, letters and the daring surveys.

"This was one of the most exciting experiences I have ever had as a historian," said Degler, an early feminist. "No one had ever seen it before.

"I still remember one question: 'Do you have vaginal orgasms?" he said.

Mosher's work, about 45 profiles in all, has been a treasure trove for feminist scholars. They also reveal a brilliant and odd scientist who championed the cause of women, but led a lonely life.

"In many ways, she was a modern woman and was very unhappy because of it," Degler said. "She never married and she had no relations with men."

Degler made the surveys public in 1974, concluding in an article in the American Historical Review that even though there was "an effort to deny women's feelings" during the Victorian age, "ideology" was "never put into practice."

One woman, born in 1844, told Mosher that sex was "a normal desire" and "rational use of it tends to keep people healthier."

Another, younger by 20 years, said "the highest devotion is based upon it, a very beautiful thing, and I am glad nature gave it to us."

Some worried that they shouldn't enjoy sex so much. Another moved out of the bedroom "to avoid temptation of too frequent intercourse." Others faulted their husbands for not being "properly trained."

Clelia Mosher Researched Sex Before Kinsey

Mosher questioned dozens of women long before Albert Kinsey pioneered his own studies of willing friends in his Indiana attic and published his 1953 book, "Sexual Behavior in the Normal Female."

Her studies were less than scientific and her subjects were mostly well-educated faculty wives who may have been more enlightened. But they gave a voice to the women themselves.

Abortion and contraception were illegal then but many of the women admitted they had tried douching, withdrawal or rhythm to prevent pregnancy. Some had even tried the "womb veil" or male condoms.

"My husband and I . . . believe in intercourse for its own sake -- we wish it for ourselves and spiritually miss it, rather than physically, when it does not occur, because it is the highest, most sacred expression of our oneness," wrote one woman, born in 1860.

"On the other hand, there are sometimes long periods when we are not willing to incur even a slight risk of pregnancy, and then we deny ourselves the intercourse, feeling all the time that we are losing that which keeps us closest to each other," she said.

Another woman, who was born in 1862, told Mosher that she felt "a strong desire for children" but marriage was no more than "legalized prostitution.

"I most heartily wish there were no accidental conceptions," she wrote. "I believe the world would take a most gigantic stride toward high ethical conditions, if every child brought into the world were the product of pure love and conscious choice."

Elizabeth Griego, whose exhaustive research for a 1983 dissertation on "marginalized" professional women was the basis of Stanford's article, said, "They were very worried about the safety of childbirth and losing babies.

"They saw sex as a form of intimacy with their husbands, what we would say today," said Griego, now vice president for student life at University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif. "They saw it as natural and there was an absence of the kind of hysterical stereotypes we perceive in their thinking of sex."

Although many of the women were naive about sex, 35 of the 45 profiled women said they had desire, and 34 reported orgasm; 24 said pleasure was the main reason for intercourse and about three-quarters of the women engaged in sex at least once a week.

Mosher didn't.

Socially awkward and described as "mannish" in her dress, Mosher had no male suitors or even female friends, only imaginary ones to whom she wrote poignant letters, yearning for intimacy.

"She was a woman in a man's field who wished to be a researcher and a scientist and didn't know any other women," Griego said. "Her ground-breaking path was to be able to conduct research and hoped to be taken seriously."

Mosher was born in 1863, the "temperamental" daughter of an Albany, N.Y., doctor who instilled in her a love of physiology by taking her on his rounds. But he wouldn't let her go to college, instead setting her up in a florist shop.

"He drew on the prevalent Spencerian notion that the body was a closed energy system and if women were to engage in the mental strain of higher education, it would divert a crucial amount of limited energy from the uterus and impair their ability to reproduce," Griego said.

But, at 25, Mosher saved enough money to venture to Wellesley College in Massachusetts before heading to the University of Wisconsin, where she began surveys on "marital relations." She followed a mentor to Stanford in 1893.

Mosher Studied Women's Respiration, Menstruation

Mosher's first studies were in respiration. She railed against the hooped skirts and tight corsets of the time, believing they were responsible for shallow chest-breathing.

"The skirt, as modified by the vagaries of fashion, has a direct bearing on the health, development and efficiency of the woman," Mosher wrote in 1920. "I made a series of observations on the clothing of 98 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."

Griego said, "When she got women to remove their corset and constricting underwear, they breathed the same as men. No one could study this because women didn't disrobe for men."

Mosher kept track of women's menstrual cycles and tried to debunk theories that women should remain housebound during their periods. She concluded that painful periods were a direct result of inactivity caused by the "inevitable illness."

She even developed exercises, dubbed "Moshers," to help strengthen women's abdomens during menstruation.

"Equal pay for women means equal work; unnecessary menstrual absences mean less than full work," she wrote.

In 1896, Mosher went to Johns Hopkins University in the first years it opened the Baltimore medical school to women. But in 1900, when she got her medical degree, she was told she could never be a gynelogical surgeon because no male doctors would work with her.

Mosher tried to open her own medical practice but was unable to get the respect or referrals to stay in business. Subsequently, she returned to Stanford as a professor of personal hygiene and a women's medical adviser.

There, even though she lectured her students on the importance of health and physical activity, women trusted her as a scientist and doctor, confiding their intimacies.

Despite Mosher's enlightened views on women, she never bonded with other professional women and was bored with the tea parties given by the faculty wives whose secrets she kept.

"I am finding out gradually why I am so lonely," she wrote in her 1919 diary. "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."

She began a novel about a woman who had to choose between career and marriage, then never finished it. She lived her later years with her mother and yet longed for friends.

"It so poignant," said Griego. "What got to me were not only her endeavors to be rigorous and scientific, but there was a cost. She was lonely. At one point I was reading her letters and she was pouring her heart out."

"Dear 'Friend who never was," Mosher wrote in 1926. "I have given up ever finding you. I have tried out all my friends and they have not measured up to my dreams."

Now, decades after the discovery of the surveys, Mosher's reputation is being resurrected at Stanford.

"We were intrigued by her personal story as well as the research," magazine editor Cool said.

"She comes off as a poignant figure, a woman whose curiosity and scholarly inclination alienated her from many women of the time, but who could not break through the significant professional barriers that existed for women and therefore could not fully reside in either world," he said.

The response from modern alumni has been "enormous," he said. "The story has been reprinted, excerpted and commented on in several blogs and press reports."

One reader, a alumna who attended Stanford in the 1970s on a Clelia Mosher Scholarship, was particularly moved to learn about the sex pioneer.

"She was bowled over to find out Mosher's background," Cool said. "It made her grateful all over again for the gift that enabled her own education."