Not good with breathing, either

A few days ago I came across this incredible article about Dr. Clelia Duel Mosher. Never heard of her? Clelia Mosher (1863-1940) was a hygienist, medical doctor and Stanford professor. Her best known work was only discovered and published decades after her death. The historian Carl Degler found the notes in 1973 while going through Mosher’s papers:

“I opened it up and there were these questionnaires”— questionnaires upon which dozens of women, most born before 1870, had inscribed their most intimate thoughts.

In other words, it was a sex survey. A Victorian sex survey. It is the earliest known study of its type, long preceding, for example, the 1947 and 1953 Kinsey Reports, whose oldest female respondents were born in the 1890s. The Mosher Survey recorded not only women’s sexual habits and appetites, but also their thinking about spousal relationships, children and contraception. Perhaps, it hinted, Victorian women weren’t so Victorian after all.

If it’s Victorian!!! Sex!!! that you’re looking for, the article will disappoint you. Instead, it offers a fascinating profile of a woman who was way too far ahead of her time, who believed herself equal to her male colleagues even after gender discrimination forced her to give up medical practice. She went on to join Stanford faculty as assistant professor, attaining the rank of full professor just one year before retirement.

But it’s Mosher’s work, not life, that I want to write about, From the same article:

Thanks to a steady supply of young female research subjects, Mosher’s 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. Her master’s thesis, for example, showed that women breathe from the diaphragm, as men do, rather than from the chest, as was believed at the time. She concluded that this so-called biological difference was really due to tight corsetry.

I’ve seen some of the clothing that Mosher talks about, courtesy of the Original Costume Museum Society. Had it explained to me, too. These clothes were not just uncomfortable. They were crippling, sometimes to the point of bordering on the macabre. Tight corseting from young age prevented the abdominal and back muscles from developing normally. The massive skirt bent the spine into a grotesque S-curve that would cause today’s orthopedists to recoil in horror. (Contemporary physicians weren’t exactly thrilled, either). Many miscarriages and deaths in childbirth could be attributed to the atrophied muscles, the weakened bones, the hips jutting out from backs at unlikely angles.


We could just as well elaborate on the exercise (or lack thereof), personal hygiene and mental conditioning. It’s known well enough that the Victorian lifestyle was not optimal for women’s health. Obviously it was not thought of as such at the time. In her book Woman’s Physical Freedom, Mosher documents all this at great length, citing studies and providing statistics, justifying in detail the lifestyle recommendations that we would now accept as obvious.

What I did not know – or at least I don’t think I’ve seen it brought into such focus – is that there were “scientific” theories and beliefs associated with the lifestyle. In Mosher’s own words:

Is it not possible that at least some of women’s physical disqualifications as well, have been owing to surrounding conditions rather than inherent in her sex? I agree with Professor Meyer at Stanford University in his statement that “we cannot make a man into a woman nor a woman into a man.”– I will go still further and say that we do not even wish to do so. But we may make a judicial examination of these traditional handicaps in the light of scientific knowledge. Indeed we must do this, since the new conditions resulting from the world war oblige women to undergo the strain of unparalleled labor which they are traditionally unfit to bear; in this intolerable situation the need for truth with regard to women’s physical limitation becomes imperative.

In 1892 every physiology still taught that women breathed costally, and men abdominally. The costal respiration of women was believed to be a provision against the time of gestation. In 1894 the writer while at Stanford University, and Dr. Fitz at Harvard, independently and almost simultaneously, demonstrated that there is no sexual difference in the type of respiration.

This of course reminds me of the contemporary theories claiming (for example) that women aren’t biologically wired for math or science. Then, as now, we were entangled in a web of social conventions and superstitions that had the effect of keeping women in their place. Then, as now, biological theories and beliefs were created to “explain” it. Then, as now, the relevant medical science was incomplete enough to allow plenty of theories that couldn’t be proved or disproved. (Mosher herself did not shrink from the occasional stray conjecture, and if you think that she was alone in this, you should read this story.) All the same, many of the presumed innate differences had a way of disappearing once the aggravating factors were removed.

The biological differences between genders have never been a purely medical issue. They had serious economic and political implications back in Mosher’s days, as she points out repeatedly, and they still do. My best guess is that 200-300 years from now, once neuroscience has advanced to a point where we might actually begin to unravel the biological roots of intelligence, our supposed deficiency in innate math ability will turn out to be yet another instance of that well known female disorder that renders women physically incapable of picking up a large paycheck or giving an order to a man.

It’s quite possible, though, that new theories of biological differences will be developed by then. History does like to repeat itself.

Author: Izabella Laba

Mathematics professor at UBC. My opinions are, obviously, my own.

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