Saturday, June 07, 2008

Senda Berenson - Pioneer of Women's Basketball

As I've mentioned before, I'm writing a historical YA set in a women's college in Upstate New York. One of the interesting bits of research that I've learned is how important sports and physical education was at the colleges. We tend to think of things like gym as being strictly a product of the 20th century, but au contraire mon amie, the women who attended female seminaries or boarding schools as well as the nasceant women's colleges were very involved in physical activities.

Most schools required the girls to take calisthenics of some sort, as well as organized sports. I was intrigued to learn that even though basketball (or basket ball as they spelled it then) was invented until December of 1891 by Dr. James Naismith (who was Canadian) at a YMCA training school in Springfield, MA, by 1892 it was being played at Smith College.

Senda Berenson (1868-1954), who had immigrated from Lithuania with her family, was teaching at Smith when she modified the rules of the game to suit women. By 1896, it was well established at several other women's colleges, including Vassar. Berenson was taking a risk simply by teaching the game to women, which is why she modifiedl the rules. This included dividing the court into 3 sections and 9 players per team. Two players were assigned to each area and couldn't cross the line into another area. The ball, like now, was passed from section to section by passing or dribbling. You couldn't dribble the ball more than 3 times or hold it for 3 seconds. No snatching or batting the ball away from another player was allowed. The baskets were actual peach baskets. After every basket, someone had to physically remove the ball from the basket (no had yet thought of making a hole in the basket).

In 1893, the freshmen played the sophomores at Smith College. Also in 1893, Mount Holyoke and Sophie Newcomb College (which is now part of Tulane) were playing basketball. By 1896, the first intercollegiate games were being played, Stanford women vs. Berkeley. A woman named Clara Gregory Baer published the first book of rules for the game in 1895 but she called the game Basquette which is kind of French and weird.

Senda Berenson (whose brother was the noted art historian Bernard Berenson, making her the great-great aunt of photographer Berry Berenson and socialite Marisa Berenson), also authored the first Basketball Guide for Women in 1901-1907. I found a copy of this book online and it is very interesting. Lots of articles about how beneficial basketball is for women. She later married a professor of English at Smith named Herbert Vaughan Abbott, soon after she resigned from the college.

Senda Berenson Abbott is now known today as the Mother of Women's Basketball and was the first woman ever enshrined into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

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