A perfect trifecta… it’s March Madness, Women’s History Month and the birthday of Senda Berenson, the “Mother of Women’s Basketball.” In celebration of this monumental occasion, we share her story.
Senda Berenson, born March 19, 1868, was a pioneer of women’s basketball. In 1893, as the Director of the Gymnasium and Instructor of Physical Culture at Smith College, Senda introduced the first rules of women’s basketball and organized the first women’s college basketball game.
Born in Lithuania and raised in Boston, Senda was said to be “weak and delicate.” In fact, her poor health was cited as the reason she was unable to complete her training at the Boston Conservatory of Music where she had been studying the piano.
Senda Berenson in front of Smith College Alumnae Gymnasium
But in 1890, in an effort to improve her own health and strength, Senda enrolled at the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics. There, she studied anatomy, physiology, and hygiene. She was hired by Smith College upon her graduation in 1892. This was one month after the game of “Basket Ball” had been invented by James Naismith at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, MA. Senda read an article that Naismith wrote and wondered if the game would be a good activity for women.
On March 21, 1893, Senda organized the first women’s collegiate basketball game when she had Smith freshmen and sophomores play against one another.
“The great evil in our athletics today is that we lose sight of all things except the desire to win—to win by fair means or foul—to beat the other side. Hence the importance of the recreation side—the joy in playing—is entirely lost.” Senda Berenson
Basketball, like most team sports at the time, was considered too rigorous for women. Influenced by that thinking, Senda, worried that women may suffer “nervous fatigue” playing the game as it was intended, adapted the rules to avoid the “roughness” of the men’s game.
To ensure modesty among her students, the court was divided into three sections, with six players per team. Two players were assigned to each area, and could not cross the line into other areas. Women were not allowed to steal the ball, hold it for more than three seconds, or dribble it more than three times. It was Senda’s intention to prevent a young woman from developing “dangerous nervous tendencies and losing the grace and dignity and self respect we would all have her foster.”
Although it doesn’t sound like it, Senda was actually a very progressive woman. She recognized that one of the most common reasons against giving women equal pay at work was that they were to weak and more likely to become ill. “They need, therefore, all the more to develop health and endurance if they desire to become candidates for equal wages,” she said. To put this in perspective, just remember this was almost thirty years before the 19th amendment.
By 1895, word had spread of Senda’s version of the new game, and there were hundreds of women’s basketball teams forming around the country. These teams helped open the door to other team sports programs for women.
Senda’s formalized game rules were made official when published in 1899. Two years later, she became editor of A.G. Spalding’s first Basket Ball Guide for Women. She continued to edit the rules until the 1916-17 season. Many of the rules she developed remained standard until the 1960s.
In 1911, at the age of 43, Senda married Herbert Vaughan Abbott, a professor at Smith, and resigned from her position at the College. She remained as editor of the Basket Ball Guide for Women and as chair of the U.S. Women’s Basketball Committee for another six years. Her husband died in 1929. In 1934 she moved to Santa Barbara, CA to live with her sister. Senda died in 1954 at the age of 86.
Thirty years later, in 1984, Senda became the first woman to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, recognized for her contributions to the game.
Senda Berenson revolutionized the world of women’s sport. Everything we talk about today, the value of team sports for girls, the lessons learned, the confidence gained all began with this women we should all know and thank!
Lead image via Smith College Archives: “Ball about to be tossed up at centre” (Senda Berenson holding ball). Illustration for 1903 edition of Basket Ball for Women. Photograph by Kath. E. McClellan.