Women's sports were widely condemned in the 1890s. Modern Olympics Games founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin called the activities "indecent," and even bicycle riding by women was decried as "vicious" by The Atlantic, a prestigious magazine. But the norms of the era didn't deter a Massachusetts college physical education director named Senda Berenson from organizing the first women's college basketball game in the spring of 1893.
A little more than a year earlier, Berenson, a 25-year-old Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, read about the invention of basketball by Dr. James Naismith, who was born in Canada. Naismith wrote the sport’s original 13 rules as part of a December 1891 class assignment at a YMCA training school in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Intrigued and eager to promote physical fitness, Berenson began the sport as a class exercise at the women-only Smith College in Northhampton, Massachusetts. The first game between teams was played at the campus gymnasium on March 22, 1893, with Berenson officiating.
Hung from the ceiling, two wastebaskets served as hoops. The competitors, clad in long, dark bloomers, played two 15-minute halves, with a 10-minute intermission in between. Each team earned one point for a made basket. A crowd of roughly 800 wildly cheering women students—men weren't allowed to attend—watched the sophomores win, 5-4.
"The running track of the gymnasium was crowded with spectators, and gay with the colors of the two classes," according to a newspaper account. "One side was occupied by sophomores and seniors, the other by juniors and freshmen, and a lively rivalry between the two parties was maintained throughout the contest."
The winning team received a gold and green banner.
Nearly a century later, Berenson—who became known as "The Mother of Women's Basketball"—received recognition as a basketball contributor with a posthumous induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Who Was Women's Basketball Pioneer Senda Berenson?
Born March 19, 1868, in Butrimonys, Lithuania, Berenson emigrated to America with her family after her father's lumber business was destroyed in a fire. The impoverished Berensons settled in Boston, where Senda became interested in music, literature and art.
To improve her woeful physical conditioning, Berenson studied Swedish gymnastics—a discipline focused on stretching and exercises—at a Boston gymnastics academy. Berenson enjoyed the activity so much that she became a lifelong advocate of physical conditioning and gymnastics, much to the disappointment of her brother, Bernard, who wanted her to continue to study piano.
In 1892, Berenson was hired to coach Swedish gymnastics at Smith College, roughly 100 miles west of Boston. She eventually became the school's physical education director. At Smith College, Berenson saw a need to fill a void during long, hard New England winters.
“Berenson wanted to supplement the gymnastics exercises with other activities that would keep students fit, from going stir-crazy and could be utilized indoors," says Nanci Young, archivist at Smith College. "Naismith's basketball seemed like a good candidate.”
Berenson was also frustrated with the lack of interest in athletic activity as a source of wellness among the Smith students.
"When she heard of Naismith's work with basketball and its effectiveness in drawing in similarly uninterested young men, she quickly seized upon it as a possible solution," says Ralph Melnick, author of Senda Berenson: The Unlikely Founder of Women’s Basketball. "And it was.”
A Player Suffers Injury in Historic Game
In the first game, women didn't move around the court much, but the historic contest was hardly genteel, according to students who witnessed it. On the opening tip-off, a player was seriously injured.
“As I threw the ball for the beginning of the game, it struck the uplifted hand of the center player, the captain of the freshman team, in a peculiar way so that it threw her shoulder joint out of place," Berenson said, according to the book, Shattering The Glass: The Remarkable History of Women's Basketball. "We took the girl into the office and pulled the joint into place, another center took her place, and the game went on."
Berenson’s game was not intended for young women to develop a fierce, competitive spirit. “That was a male goal, and clearly not what Senda believed the purpose of women's basketball to be,” Melnick says.
The first game was simply a friendly competition, and afterward, the winners served refreshments to the losers.
Berenson's adaptation of the men's game included dividing the court into three equal sections, with players required to stay within their areas. Players could not snatch or knock a ball from another player’s hands, and a 3-second time limit on holding the ball was mandated, with no more than three dribbles allowed at one time.
Berenson amended Naismith’s rules to avoid “dangerous nervous tendencies and losing the grace and dignity and self-respect we would all have [a women player] foster,” according to an account.
The game was an instant hit with students. “The faculty took a bit more convincing," says Melnick, "but would come around in the years ahead as they began to see the undeniable benefits this new program brought to their students." Big games at the school in the early 1900s reportedly drew as many as 1,200 spectators.
Soon after that first game, women began playing basketball across the country, with the first intercollegiate women’s game held on April 4, 1896, pitting Stanford against the University of California.
Berenson's Rules for Women's Game Are Published
In 1901, Berenson’s rules were first published in a women's basketball guide issued by Spalding, a sporting goods company. The rules were revised in 1913 and again in 1915, but major changes were not made again until the 1960s, Young says.
“Some colleges pushed to bring about even greater changes than Senda could support in an effort to make the game faster and more competitive," Melnick says. "But she held the line, though some teams nevertheless went outside of the lines that she had drawn."
Berenson, who died in 1954, eagerly promoted the game for the rest of her life. And, in 1985, she and former college basketball player and coach Margaret Wade became the first women enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield.