Never Heard of Her: Senda Berenson
Senda Berenson knew a thing or two about healthy competition. A year into her job as a physical education instructor at Smith College, she introduced the new game called “basket ball” to her students. What started as a way to help young women get a bit of exercise through teamwork turned into a full-fledged sport that would change countless women’s lives.
During the first-ever women’s game, between the school’s freshmen and sophomores in March 1892, girls sporting bloomers ran the ball up and down the court, knocking one another over in an attempt to sink it in the opposing team’s trash can. That’s right: This was literally so early in the game’s history, particularly among women, that the Smith players didn’t even have nets yet. (To be fair, basketball inventor James Naismith used peach baskets, so.) Screaming fans -- all women in the interest of modesty -- packed the stands, waving green banners for the freshies and lavender for the sophs.
The once delicate, now determined Berenson was amazed at the response, but her proudest moment wasn’t even necessarily the game itself; it was the sportsmanship that shone through the shoves. “We made a point in the beginning to develop good sportsmanship,” she wrote in her diary. She described how thrilled she was to watch as the winning team bought dinner for their opponents, even making speeches honoring their efforts. “I was proud of the spirit of those girls.”
The Massachusetts basketball court was a long way from her childhood home in Lithuania. Born Senda Valvrojenski in 1868, she was just 7 when she traveled with her mother and brothers to Boston, where her father had already set up shop. He changed their last name to Berenson and decided his Jewish family would adopt an exclusively secular, English-speaking lifestyle. With his focus on education despite their poverty, he enrolled Senda in a prestigious school and piano classes, but she was a pretty sickly kid, with persistent back pain.
The solution? Gymnastics, of course! Having just turned down some dude’s marriage proposal, Senda enrolled in the Boston Normal School for Gymnastics, where she also took anatomy and physiology classes to beef up her brain along with her bod. Fortunately for us, she loved it, and a strong new P.E. teacher was born. Two years later, in 1892, Senda became a physical training teacher at Smith College, where she encouraged people to get moving for fun and health. After reading an article by basketball creator and Springfield, Massachusetts, resident Naismith, she knew the game would make a perfect exercise for her students with one caveat -- she needed to get the focus off the aggressive plays and keep it on cooperation.
Her Smithies loved it, and she loved empowering them with such strength- and character-building activities. The game, she felt, taught players “to give up one’s own honors for the good of the whole.” But in the wake of that first game, she was compelled to establish rules after noting some women’s tendency not only toward roughness but also to dominate the game, which she felt chipped away at the ultimate goal of positive competition and teamwork.
The players should focus on team passing rather than one individual’s prowess; dribble only three times before passing or shooting to ensure everyone gets a chance; have 10 entire minutes of rest between two 15-minute periods so as not to get worn out; and never, under any circumstances, snatch the ball from another player. Leave the aggressive ball-grabbing (basketball, that is) to the men.
Women’s basketball caught like wildfire, with teams at other schools shifting Senda’s rules ever so slightly, likely with far too much aggressive competition and focus on skill over inclusivity for her taste.
In June 1899, a protective Senda successfully convinced the American Association for the Advancement of Physical Education to adopt her rules across the board, standardizing play for all women’s teams. For nearly two decades, her revisions to Spalding’s Official Basket Ball Guide for Women were law, but they were also an effort to maintain the game the way she felt it was meant to be played: Sportswomanlike, free of aggression and with a focus on positive competition for the sake of health.
Senda continued her career at Smith until 1911, when she married literature professor Herbert Vaughan Abbott and took over as director of physical education at a girls’ boarding school, encouraging new generations of young women to get active as a team. Nearly 90 years later, the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame opened in Knoxville, Tennessee. In that first class of inductees in 1999? The Mother of Basketball herself.
Gursky, Ruth. "Senda Berenson, 1868-1954." Jewish Women's Archive. https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/berenson-senda
Melnick, Ralph. Senda Berenson: The Unlikely Founder of Women's Basketball. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007. https://books.google.com/books?id=NQmVfzanM24C&source=gbs_navlinks_s