Women testing their strength at Stanford in 1913.
Dr. Clelia Duel Mosher
Living life in 2010, we often say that all the world's stories have been told; that there's nothing new to say or share. In some ways, that's true. We've repeatedly visited the worlds of intrigue, love, disaster, family, friendship ... all the myriad aspects of life. We've strolled through the flat, moist sands of happiness and traversed the arid, mountainous deserts of despair. Yet still, in a world of remakes and reboots, with many stories being told over and over with every possible spin, there are real tales and fresh history to relay.
Since this column is about the triumphs and struggles of women in cinema, I thought it would be nice to throw in the occasional story Hollywood has yet to tell or fully flush out -- the women of history and life who could make big-screen characterizations all the better. Dr. Clelia Duel Mosher seemed like the best place to start -- a doctor, academic, and researcher born in 1863 who conducted sex interviews years before Kinsey, revealing unexpected sexual attitudes during the priggish Victorian era.
Mosher was born in Albany, New York -- half-way through the Civil War, one day after Burnside was defeated at the Battle of Fredericksburg (Virginia), and right in the thick of the Victorian era, when puritanical and spurious views of sex thrived. It was a time when masturbation was seen as a moral disgrace, and the word "legs" was considered a vulgar term (due to what rests between).
While it would have been easy for Mosher to grow into another Victorian-era female -- chaste, sex-hating, and desiring only the most feminine pursuits -- she was given an alternative by a doctor father interested in botany and literature. She was raised to think, and even when her father fell to social norms and tried to steer her away from university, she saved her money for years and went to college, where she worked up to a master's in physiology at Stanford, and an MD at Johns Hopkins.
As a woman, her life was lonely. Born well before a time she would have thrived in, Mosher never married and had very few close relationships. She felt alienated from her fellow women and spent her non-academic time gardening, writing a novel about a woman who chooses her career over her love, and many letters to an imaginary friend. She once wrote: "Dear 'Friend who never was': I have given up ever finding you. I have tried out all my friends and they have not measured up to my dreams." Mosher was constantly shackled by her sex, ultimately staying in academic work because of the struggles women faced in the medical field, and existing alone because of her before-her-time views.
For years, Mosher was famous for her scientific work proving the equality between men and women. She dispelled the myth that women didn't breathe from the diaphragm like men. She revealed the physical detriment caused by corsets. She linked pain in menstruation with inactivity and other outside sources not connected with biology (nutrition, clothing, false fear). She did everything she could to show the ridiculousness of sex-based bigotry.
But one of her most telling discovered remained hidden until 1973, when historian Carl Degler discovered a bound file of papers. Ignored for years, this bundle turned out to be a pile of questionnaires pertaining to female health and sex. Decades before Kinsey moved from flies to sex, Mosher was collecting data about female sexuality, mainly from Victorian-era respondents born before 1870 -- ultimately unveiling the divide between Queen Victoria's stringent impact on society, and what went on behind closed doors.
Her results, which she used to advise young women, even taken from such a small segment of society (mainly university women), revealed a whole different Victorian world. Most admitted to sexual desires that clash with the writing of men, like William Acton, who wrote that women had no need for sex. Many experienced orgasms, used some form of birth control, and one even slept separately from her husband to try to avoid falling victim to her desires. The research revealed how many women knew nothing of sex before marriage, how one didn't even know how children were made until the age of 18, and how stringent attitudes towards sex could be severely damaging. (One woman was so shocked by sex that she ran away from her husband, until she was "sent back by parents and told to behave.")
Ultimately, there's an entire sea of cinematic possibilities resting in Mosher's story. There's the woman born too early for her interests and intellect, who struggled against ludicrous and false beliefs about women and the isolation of being so different than the rest of her social community -- both academic men and ladies who lunch. There's the many ridiculous statements about women and sex that are just asking for a satiric, historical comedy told from a modern eye. And, most definitely, there is the looking glass trained on an era always described as prudish and restrained -- a welcome revelation that Victorian values may have plagued society at large, but couldn't entirely penetrate life behind closed doors.
Mosher's findings are free from the controversy Kinsey's work is plagued with. They speak to the damages wrought by ignoring sexuality (which is sadly still relevant today), to the women who rose above society's strict rule. They offer a new twist on well traversed Victorian life, and offer a look at the Queen that was ignored with The Young Victoria.
Considering how great Kinsey was, imagine what Hollywood could do with Mosher.
Stanford Magazine feature on Mosher.
American Heritage's account of Mosher and her study.