Senda Berenson never aspired to become a pioneer of women’s sport, but she invented women’s basketball anyway.
It’s Friday afternoon, March 1892, and the gymnasium in Northampton, Massachusetts, is packed to the rafters. Eighteen players take their positions, both teams wearing bloomers, the two sides distinguished not by uniforms but colored handkerchiefs tied around their arms. On either end of the court, a peach basket has been hung by ropes from the balcony and dangles some eight feet off the ground. A crowd of rapt spectators has gathered to watch the unique spectacle about to occur, but there is not a man among them. To warn off the curious, a note has been placed on the door. “Gentlemen are not allowed in the gymnasium during basket ball games,” it says. The note is signed “S. Berenson.”
The note’s writer stands at the center of the court, a soccer ball under her arm as she prepares for the opening tip-off in this contest between freshmen and sophomores. She is 24 and has recently become the temporary physical education director at Smith College, an elite liberal arts college. Physical education for women is a new idea, one some people find unladylike if not downright unnatural. “Until recent years,” Berenson wrote, “the so-called ideal woman was a small waisted, small footed, small brained damsel, who prided herself on her delicate health, who thought fainting interesting, and hysterics fascinating.”
As the mother of women’s basketball, Senda Berenson would do a lot to change that notion.
Born into a poor Jewish family that immigrated to the Boston area when she was 7 years old, Berenson never aspired to become a pioneer of women’s sport. She had aspired to become a concert pianist, but with a bad back was forced to drop out of the Boston Conservatory. She enrolled in the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics in hopes of strengthening her back enough to again pursue music, but when her enthusiasm prompted Amy Homans, director of the gymnastics program, to recommend her for a newly opened position at Smith College, her course was set.
Berenson initially encountered a faculty and student body that were, at best, indifferent to physical education. Despite the school boasting a $30,000 state-of-the-art gymnasium, attendance at P.E. classes was poor and mostly centered on dumbbell exercises. Berenson was the first to make attendance mandatory and she introduced Swedish gymnastics into the curriculum. It was when looking around for some group game the young women could play together that she stumbled upon a story in a monthly YMCA magazine that would change her life.
The story concerned James Naismith, instructor at the nearby Springfield College, and a game he had invented that could be played indoors during the harsh New England winter. He called his game “Basket Ball” (despite those who wished to call it “Naismith Ball” in honor of its inventor). Upon reading the article, Berenson made the twenty mile journey to see this new game in person.
Deciding it was precisely what she needed to introduce the concept of team play to her students, she brought the game to Smith College and it proved immediately popular. Berenson modified Naismith’s rules to make it a game she believed more suitable for women, and to make it a better vehicle for the moral lessons she wished to impart. Teams consisted of nine players a side, but the court was divided into three zones and no player could leave their assigned zone. Play was shortened to two 15-minute periods and a 10-minute half-time. Grabbing the ball from an opponent was not allowed and players could hold onto the ball for no more than three seconds. Neither could the ball be dribbled by a player for more than three bounces.
The game, as Berenson helped design it, was not intended to hone individual athletic skills so much as to get everyone participating. “The individual should be kept in mind always as the most important factor in all education,” she wrote, “but we should look for physical development of the mass rather than of those who are already superior.” Basketball, she espoused, was good not just for teaching “physical courage” but “self-control and good manners,” requiring its players “to give up one’s own honors for the good of the whole.” In her view, basketball was about teaching moral character and true womanhood.
A year after that first match, the women’s game had already spread as far as California. Berenson was flooded with calls from schools wishing to compete against Smith, but she felt intercollegiate competition was not in keeping with the recreational spirit of game. A second game between the freshmen and sophomores was opened to the general public and more than 1,100 people crammed into the gymnasium to witness it, making some compare it to the Yale-Harvard annual football game.
Basketball’s success allowed Berenson to increase the offerings at Smith College, enabling women to participate in tennis, boating, field hockey, fencing and a host of other activities. She published the first standardized rules for women’s basketball in 1901 (rules she continued to revise throughout her life) and chaired the Women’s Basketball Committee for 12 years. In 1985, 31 years after her death, she was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. That same year, a women’s game between Iowa and Ohio State set an attendance record of 22,157. During the 2008-2009 season, NCAA women’s basketball attendance topped the 11 million mark nationwide.
With the rules now more closely resembling those of the men’s game, Senda Berenson would scarce recognize the women’s college game that millions will watch as March Madness gets underway this month. And given the importance she placed on comportment and self-denial, one can only wonder what she would make of the WNBA, but she would no doubt be pleased to find among their ranks not a single delicate, small-footed woman interested in fainting.
Originally published March 2010