Podcast – Senda Berenson Abbott – “Mother of Women’s Basketball

Senda Berenson Abbott – “Mother of Women’s Basketball”

From the Book:
A Short History of Basketball – Indiana Edition
Last week listeners learned about the father of basketball, James Naismith. This week’s episode relates the story of the Mother of Women’s Basketball, Senda Berenson.

Women’s Basketball began in 1892 at Smith College when Senda Berenson introduced the game at the College.
Considered the “Mother of Women’s Basketball,” Senda Berenson Abbott not only initiated the first women’s basketball program at Smith College in 1892, she wrote the first handbook for women’s basketball, the Basketball Guide for Women.
Senda Berenson Abbott (March 19, 1868 – February 16, 1954)
The daughter of Albert and Judith Mickleshanski Valvrojenski, Sendra was native to Vilnius, Lithuania. Her father migrated to the Boston area in the United States in 1874 alone, sending for his family to join him in 1875. Albert changed the family surname to Berenson sometime after moving.

Senda’s early education consisted mainly of home-schooling and attendance at the Girl’s Latin School, however she did not graduate from the school because she suffered poor health as a girl. She attended the Boston Conservatory of Music, but had to leave because her bad back prevented her from playing the piano for long periods of time.

Gymnastics was the most popular form of athletic exercise during this time, the predominant form being a German style of gymnastics. In 1889 the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics formed with the goal of providing teachers with a different style of gymnastics, the Swedish style. Berenson learned of the school and wanted to enroll, hoping the gymnastics program would improve her back, allowing her to return to her music studies at the Conservatory. Having a high school diploma was one of the requirements, and Sendra had not graduated. The school administration decided, because of her physical issues, to enroll her anyway as a test. The program was a success, leading to Berenson’s appointment as athletic director of Smith College in 1891.

As director, Berenson taught the girls at the school gymnastics, however the students were not enthusiastic about the sport. She began investigating to find a sport that the girls would like and came upon the new sport of basketball, developed by James Naismith. At this time team sports were unknown to women, so her initial experiment in basketball was in itself revolutionary. The women at the school soon became enthusiastic about the new sport. She pitted the freshman and sophomore classes in a game played on March 22, 1893. No men were permitted to watch the game.

Berenson also played an important role in establishing other team sports to Smith College, including volleyball, field hockey and fencing. In 1911 she married Herbert Vaughan Abbott, after which she retired from Smith College.

Senda Berenson watched the game as devised by Naismith a month or so after he devised it. Boys basketball was incredibly rough, so she decided to revise the rules to reflect a more “feminine,” style of play. She divided the court into three sections. The zone nearest the team’s offensive basket were the shooters responsible for scoring points. The middle zone’s players were the passers. The players near the team’s defensive goal were rebounders and defenders. The players assigned to each zone were confined to that zone. Berenson deemed that stealing the basketball from an opponent was too “masculine,” and was banned. Upon receiving the ball a player was limited to dribbling three times and could only hold the ball for three seconds. A jump ball followed every score. Since games between different schools were considered too competitive, only games between teams in the same school were scheduled. To discourage rivalry between teams developing, the team rosters were rotated periodically. As with boy’s basketball, the popularity of the new sport spread quickly to other schools. Berenson did not publish her rules until 1899.

Clara Gregory Baer devised another version of basketball rules during her tenure as instructor of Physical Culture at Sophie Newcomb Memorial College in New Orleans.
Clara Gregory Baer (August 27, 1863 – January 19, 1938)
The daughter of Hamilton John and Ellen Douglas Riley Baer, Clara was native to Algiers, Louisiana. As a girl she suffered from ill health and was encouraged to play outdoors to strengthen her body. After her Moher passed away when she was young, her maternal grandmother raised her. She attended primary schools locally, however because of the lack of available secondary schooling in the Reconstruction era south she attended high school in Louisville, Kentucky. After graduating from high school she attended the Boston School of Expression, the Emerson School of Oratory, and the Nils Posse Normal School of Physical Education.

She took the job as Women’s Gymnastics Director at the Southern Athletics Club in New Orleans in 1891. Her job entailed training wives and daughters of the members of the club in gymnastics. She approached Newcomb College, proposing to initiate a program of physical education at the school, as none existed. The college accepted her proposal and hired her on a temporary basis. The program proved popular and the position became permanent.

Baer learned of Naismith’s new game and wrote him a letter requesting information. Naismith replied with a copy of his rules accompanied by a diagram of the court with players in position at their ideal position. Baer misinterpreted the diagram as meaning that the positions depicted in the diagram were permanent and that players could not move out of them. Thus she divided the court into seven zones and the players in those positions could not move out of them. She revised this in later rules. In her game, players could not dribble, steal or guard opponents. Two handed passing was banned over fears it would compress the chest.

Baer receives credit for the first published rules for women’s basketball because her rules were published in 1896. Berenson’s rules, developed in 1892, did not receive publication until 1899. Innovations made during her tenure included the jump shot, which the boys sport did not use until the 1930’s and the first unified women’s basketball rules.

Baer continued her career in college athletics at Newcomb until her retirement in 1929. After her death she was interred at Metairie Cemetery, New Orleans, Orleans Parish, Louisiana.

Like the men, there were not uniforms designed especially for ladies that wanted to play the sport. Women wore street clothes which were generally long skirts, blouses and scarves. They also wore corsets, which were tight and constricting. Their footwear consisted of slippers. Women playing basketball in this attire often tripped over the long skirt’s hems and fell, breaking bones and blackening eyes. The only body parts allowed to be exposed were the head, fingers and necks. Ladies and girls began playing the sport, with specially adapted rules, shortly after its inception in 1892.

Bloomers were introduced to women’s fashions on the early 1850’s. Bloomers are a form of baggy pants that usually fasten just below the knees. The bloomer was much less restrictive to women’s movements and a much healthier garment to wear than the long, heavy dresses and corsets that went with them. They were slow to catch on, however by the turn of the 20th century women began to wear bloomers instead of the heavy dresses. Senda Berenson Abbott began clothing her players in bloomers at Newcomb College in 1896.

By the 1920’s the shorter dresses worn by women led to the adoption of women wearing shorts to play basketball. After that point, women’s basketball uniforms evolved to reflect those worn by male players.

Women’s Basketball Rules
Berenson used a revised set of Naismith’s rules that she adapted for women. Clara Gregory Baer devised her own set of rules in 1896, followed by a third set of rules published by Spalding, called the Spalding Guides for Women, beginning in 1898-99. Women’s teams during this time chose the rules they wanted to use. It wasn’t until 1971 that rules for women’s basketball evolved to the ones used today when women were allowed to play a full court game instead of half court.
This story is excerpted from my book, A Short History of Basketball – Indiana Edition, a part of the Indiana History Series.
Readers can find the book on Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble and other online book retailers in both ebook and softbound formats.
Readers can also purchase the book direct from me on my website, http://www.mossyfeetbooks.com
You can contact me at mossyfeetbooks@gmail.com
Thank you for listening

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