Personal Reflection: In memoriam, Carl Degler

I thought I’d end the year by starting at the beginning, and by doing so, I have to start with the end of a life. Carl Degler, professor emeritus of American history at Stanford University, died on Saturday, December 27, 2014, at the age of 93. It was an article by Degler that was influential on my embarking upon a career writing Victorian erotic romance.

Degler was a controversial figure, apparently, although I cannot find any anti-Degler citations at the moment. He was a feminist and wrote on American women’s history. However, as I understand it, critics dismiss his idea of “essentialism” in gender, of his taking a biological approach to cultural history and suggesting that the fact women bear children makes it seem “likely for evolutionary reasons that women are better prepared for childrearing than men,” a sort of “biology is destiny” or, rather, “is biology destiny?” hypothesis. His further analysis is that culture can intervene to change this “natural tendency” and that gender difference does not imply inequality.

Be that as it may, that’s certainly not how I happened upon Degler or his research.

In the nascent years of my becoming a writer, I was doing research on Victorian sexuality and birth control. Most Anglo-Americans view the Victorian era as particularly prudish and, therefore, assumed the years between 1837 and 1901 must have been utterly devoid of sex, or, when sex was had, it most certainly was only for procreation or male benefit. Women, it is often believed, did not experience pleasure.

I had to discover the untruth of this.

I was an academic at the time, or, rather, attached to an academic institution (the aforementioned Stanford) and so had academic resources at my beck and call, which is really, really nice when one is a historian. I was browsing JSTOR one day, and came upon the most wonderful article: “What Ought To Be and What Was: Women’s Sexuality in the Nineteenth Century,” by Carl Degler. At the time, I had no idea who Degler was or that he was a professor at Stanford. The article is a fabulous overview of the Victorian understanding of women’s sexuality, and, although published in 1974, still stands up as a great introduction to that field of research.

At the heart of his article, Degler states: “Any systematic knowledge of the sexual habits of women is a relatively recent historical acquisition, confined to the surveys of women made in the 1920s and 1930s and culminating in the well-known Kinsey report. Until recently no even slightly comparable body of evidence for nineteenth-century women was known to exist.” Degler says “until recently” because only in 1973 did he discover the papers of Dr. Clelia Duel Mosher (1863-1940) filed in the Stanford University Archives. Mosher joined the department of hygiene at Stanford around 1910, and had been studying the sexual habits of married women since around 1892. The Mosher Study discovered by Degler is made up of questionnaires answered by forty-five women over the course of c. 1892-1920. What makes this a Victorian study of sexuality is that most of the women in the Mosher Study were born before 1870, including some born prior to the American Civil War. Their sexual beliefs and habits were formed in the nineteenth century.

So what did Mosher find? In short, that Victorian women had orgasms, desired sexual relations, and felt sex was beneficial to marriage as a husband and wife’s “expression of their union”. This was radical stuff back in Mosher’s time, and was radical back in 1974, so much so that when Degler released his findings in The American Historical Review, feminist researchers flocked to the Stanford University Archives to view the Mosher Study. For an excellent overview of the study, Degler’s discovery of it, and the life of Clelia Mosher see “The Sex Scholar” by Kara Platoni in the March/April 2010 issue of the Stanford Alumni Association’s Stanford Magazine.

At the time of my discovery of Degler’s work, I was a librarian and archivist for the Stanford News Service. I oversaw its archive of photos, press releases, and biographical materials on faculty and staff maintained for use by News Service reporters. I must have been filing something in the “D”s when I came across Carl Degler’s files. I was thrilled! The article I had read had given no indication he was a Stanford professor. It was kind of cool realizing we were on the same campus.

One day a woman from the Stanford Historical Society came in to use the News Service files. It was her first time there, so I gave her an overview of our collection, and how to use the vertical carousel filing system. I asked for an example of some files to look up. “My husband,” she said. “Carl Degler.”

I totally fangirled all over her, spilling the beans that it was his article on the Mosher Study that greatly informed my writing. I do believe she relayed my enthusiasm to her husband with appreciative amusement.

It was my (former) volunteer at the library (because libraries do not thrive without volunteers!) who informed me of Degler’s illness a while ago, and told me of his death over the weekend. I really cannot express how important his re-discovery of the Mosher Study was for me. I wanted to be able to write about Victorian women enjoying sex and not have to rely on the male perspective as described in quasi-fictional works such as My Secret Life. I wanted authenticity, to be able to point to research that said, yes, women in the nineteenth century had orgasms. So because of me discovering Carl Degler discovering Clelia Mosher I feel confident about writing my spirited Victorian heroines.

If you can get ahold of the American Historical Review article, I highly recommend it. You may have access to The American Historical Review via a local library, via online access to JSTOR or another periodical aggregator, through membership in the American Historical Association, or single purchase on the Oxford Journals website. Here is the full citation:
Degler, Carl N. “What Ought To Be and What Was: Women’s Sexuality in the Nineteenth Century.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 79, No. 5 (Dec. 1974), pp. 1467-1490.

See you in 2015!

[UPDATE: Stanford finally posted an official obituary.]