A Nineteenth-Century Sex Study
Clelia Mosher portrait from Stanford University Archives
I began my Ph.D. program in 1993, five years after the publication of Helena Whitbread’s book about Anne Lister. I didn’t know anything about Lister, but I encountered similar information around 1995 while studying for my comprehensive exam called “The Status and Role of Women in the Nineteenth Century.” By then, Lister’s journals and other studies were beginning to change our understanding of nineteenth century women and the role of sex played in their lives.
For my exam, I found information on a study that had been done in the late nineteenth century by physician Dr. Clelia Mosher (1863- 1940). I learned that Mosher began studying the “sexual habits and attitudes of a group of women prior to 1890.” She continued to study the same women for 20 years, but never published the results. Her work predated the Kinsey Reports on human sexuality of 1948 and 1953. (Johns Hopkins)
Much like Lister’s journals, Mosher’s study was hidden away, but this time it was not intentional. The work was uncovered in 1973 by historian Carl Degler, who was writing on a book about the history of the family. Since Mosher taught in Stanford University’s hygiene department, the school had her papers in an archives. Degler found the bound volume on women’s sexuality but almost put it aside, assuming that it was a manuscript for one of her published works. Fortunately, he had second thoughts, which revealed an American sex survey indicating that maybe “Victorian women weren’t so Victorian after all.” (Platoni)
A summation of Mosher’s work found its way into my notes for the “Status and Role of Women” exam. Below is a bit of the information I had on file.
Or at least, that’s how my notes went in 1995.
Mosher’s study was an eye-opener and helped broaden our understanding of what life was like for women in the nineteenth century.
The information I uncovered for my exam also informed my writing later. For instance, it is clear in my historical fiction series that Maggie enjoys sex. In fact, she and Eli appear to get a bit experimental now and then, although I’m not as graphic as some authors. As a nineteenth century woman, Maggie likes to draw the curtains when things get too hot.
Below is an excerpt from Saint Maggie in which my central character gives some marital advice to her eldest daughter Lydia, who is about to get married.
Maggie tells to her daughter to ignore the marital advice books of her era and enjoy her relationship with Edgar. By saying that it is "part of God's plan," Maggie is saying that sexual activity is natural and normal. Lydia then teases her mother about being "very, very happy with Eli." And, of course, Maggie is.
On Wednesday, I'll post Chapter 5 of A Good Community.
On Friday, I’ll take a look at a prominent nineteenth century American woman who in her journals mentions a relationship with another woman that seemed a bit deeper than friendship.
Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, “Dr. Clelia Duel Mosher: Women’s Sexuality and Women’s Rights Advocate,” The Women in Medicine Legacy Foundation
Platoni, Kara. “The Sex Scholar.” Stanford Magazine. March/April 2010.
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder