Fans of the WNBA need to know about Senda Berenson Abbot, the “Mother of Women’s Basketball.” Berenson was a 23-year old European immigrant in Massachusetts during the Victorian Era who modified and introduced the sport of basketball for women to play.
In 1868, Berenson was born in a shtetl (small Jewish community) in present-day Lithuania. Her father moved to Boston in 1874 and a year later Senda joined him at the age of seven. Berenson grew up frail, and after entering the Boston Conservatory of Music to become a piano teacher at the age of 21, had to stop due to poor health.
In order to improve her strength and health to return to music, Berenson enrolled in the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics in 1890, which prepared teachers of exercise (gym teachers). After Berenson’s health improved, she became a believer in gymnastics and the power of exercise.
Pivoting from music, the 23-year old Senda Berenson began teaching gymnastics at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1892. She had heard of a new game called “Basket Ball” being played as an indoor gym exercise for men.
In her notes, according to historian Betty Spears in A Century of Women’s Basketball. From Frailty to Final Four, Berenson wrote that “Group games of any kind were unheard of. I read in a small magazine on physical education that the Springfield training school was publishing monthly an indoor game that was invented, as a class exercise by one of the men- called Basket Ball… We no sooner tried it [in class] than we liked it…”
After Naismith published an article describing the game and its rules in 1892, Berenson thought about adopting it for women to play. She was worried about her and her game being accused of unwomanlike and had the difficult task of creating a game that was both feminine and vigorous. In what sounds ridiculous to modern times, Berenson had to make a game that would not make women “masculine.”
Berenson attempted to avoid the roughness of the men’s game and stressed socialization and cooperation over competition and winning. Her version of basketball is unrecognizable to today’s game. Berenson’s rules included dividing the court into three areas, with two players permanently designated for each area; eliminated stealing the ball; limited dribbling to three bounces; and restricted a player from holding the ball longer than three seconds.
As the sport was passed on to other women via colleges, schools, YWCAs, public parks, and other civic groups, there was a need to create official common unified rules. In 1899, a conference was held amongst the leaders of the woman’s basketball world to create universal rules for the sport. Berenson was chosen to be the editor of the first rulebook for the women’s game, published by Spalding’s Athletic Library.
Spalding’s Athletic Library was an accepted source of rules for men’s sports, and this was their first rulebook for women. Berenson being chosen as an editor made her the first woman editor of a sports rulebook.
In 1901, Berenson’s official rule book was published titled Basket Ball for Women.
Many of her rules were used for over seventy years after she wrote them. However, her three-sectioned court became two sections in 1938. Starting in 1971, women officially started playing full court with teams of five. Today, players have unlimited dribbling capacity, can steal the ball from the opposing team, and can possess the ball for more than three seconds.
For sixteen years, Berenson remained a leader in the women’s basketball world. She edited yearly installments of Spalding’s women’s basketball rulebook, wrote articles about the sport, and attended speaking engagements.
Berenson’s impact was greater than just basketball. Before women played basketball, there simply weren’t team sports that women played together. Women engaged in solo sports like bicycling, horse riding, fencing, archery, roller skating, ice skating, swimming, sailing boats, or golf. The closest they got to team sports were doubles tennis or baseball.
The emergence of basketball for women at the turn of the century led to women playing team sports like field hockey, volleyball, and lacrosse. Basketball changed the perspective of how women engaged with sports and exercise.
Berenson wrote in her notes that basketball “came on at the right moment in the history of the development of games for women. One of the strongest arguments in the economic world against giving women as high salaries as men for similar work is that women are more prone to illness than men. They need, therefore, all the more to develop health and endurance if they desire to become candidates for equal wages… And how valuable a training it is which enables a woman to meet an unexpected situation, perhaps of danger, with alacrity and success.”
Berenson saw women’s participation in exercise and athletics through a health lens as well as an economic lens. She thought that exercise was needed in order for women to be more economically assimilated into society and earn the same wages that men earn. Sports were to improve your physical health so you can have the stamina to earn higher wages in the workforce.
Berenson’s reasons for promoting basketball had nothing to do with competition or excellence in athletic performance. She was not attempting to create a professional sport for professional athletes to play. She wrote, “The aim in athletics for women should above all things be health- physical health and moral health.”
Berenson could not have foreseen what basketball exists like today for women. In her pioneering work of adopting basketball for women, she had no idea that something like the WNBA would ever exist. Women’s basketball started only as a form of exercise to improve the health of women. To see what women’s basketball has grown into- a part of the entertainment industry with a professional league and a popular NCAA college basketball scene- is beautiful to see after such humble beginnings.
Without the work of Senda Berenson, we may not even have a WNBA today. In 1985, she was posthumously awarded for her contributions to the sport of basketball by being the first woman inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
When her niece Ruth Berenson accepted her induction, she said, “I hope this is only the beginning of women in basketball honored by the hall of fame.”
When referring to how the court size has changed throughout basketball’s existence from three sides to two, Ruth noted how “Now it’s all open. I think that is very symbolic for women today. It’s all open to us and we can do anything we want and [Senda] would’ve been absolutely delighted by that.”
All quotes from Berenson’s notes came from Betty Spears’ essay “Senda Berenson Abbott, New Woman: New Sport.” in A Century of Women’s Basketball. From Frailty to Final Four published in 1991
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