Senda Berenson Abbott




Almost 80 years before Title IX became the bedrock upon which female sports participation was constructed in American intercollegiate sport, Senda Berenson used the newly invented game of basketball to promote both physical fitness and sports participation among young women.

Senda Berenson (Berenson took the surname Abbott after her marriage in 1911) was a unique figure on the landscape of collegiate athletics in 1890s. Intercollegiate sports had gained popularity in the previous ten years as a result of ad hoc contests in sports such as the newly developed American football and rowing races in the 1880s, and the rivalries that sprang up between schools such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale would spread across the United States by the early 1900s. This newly tapped excitement regarding athletics was restricted to male teams and male sporting pursuits.

At age 22, Berenson had commenced her own teaching career with her admission to a newly established women's teaching college, the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics in 1890. Gymnastics had been a recognized program of physical education instruction for men for a number of years, as gymnastics schools had been founded in various parts of the United States, modeled after the European institutions that specialized in gymnastics training for men.

In January, 1892, Berenson left the Boston Normal School to join the faculty at Smith College, an allfemale institution located in Northampton, Massachusetts. Berenson became the first director of physical education at the school. Shortly after assuming her duties at Smith, she learned of a game called basketball that had been invented only one month earlier by James Naismith, a physical education instructor at the nearby International Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. Berenson learned of the new game when she read an article written by Naismith about basketball in a YMCA publication Physical Education. Berenson was intrigued by the prospect that the game could be one that might have potential benefits for her female students.

Berenson met with Naismith on several occasions throughout that year to discuss basketball. As a result, Berenson organized a trial game for her female students at Smith in March 1893, using the same rules that Naismith had devised for his male participants. Consistent with the social standards of the times, men were prohibited from watching the women play.

Berenson believed that the game could provide an excellent physical outlet for her students, notwithstanding the fact that women did not play team sports of any kind, nor did women participate in any athletic activities that permitted physical contact. It was not a concern regarding the physical ability of her students to play basketball in accordance with Naismith's rules, but a regard for the accepted standards of behavior for young women in the late Victorian era, that prompted Berenson to modify the Naismith rules for female play.

Berenson's revisions were intended to make the game less strenuous and more inclusive for all players. It was a part of Berenson's personal athletic philosophy to advocate aspects such as cooperative play and socialization over pure competition; Berenson remained opposed to women's intercollegiate competition throughout her career in education, preferring intramural athletics. Berenson's modified rules emphasized orderly play that she believed would prevent the players from becoming overly stressed. Berenson was also concerned that any game that was overtly physical for female athletes would simply be outlawed.

Berenson permitted six team members to play on the court at one time. She also divided the court into three sections to which players were assigned and where they were required to remain throughout the course of the game. Berenson reasoned that these divisions would prevent the players from overexerting themselves by running all over the court; exceptional players would be prevented from dominating the game.

To eliminate physical contact, the Berenson rules prevented players from grabbing the ball from another player's hands. Players could not dribble the ball more than three times before passing or shooting the ball, nor could players hold the ball for more than three seconds when the player was stationary. The ball could only be shot with one hand, as using two hands was believed to alter the muscle structure of a woman's chest, and thus flatten out the natural female form and to restrict breathing. Guarding, in the sense of physically preventing an opponent from moving in a desired direction, was forbidden. If a player fell down to the floor, the player was charged with a foul. Berenson could never have foreseen the trend in recent years at every level of basketball, including National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) play, to impose fouls on those players who deliberately fall to the floor in an attempt to draw an offensive foul.

At Smith College, Berenson's physical education interests expanded beyond basketball. She introduced other activities, such as fencing and folk dancing into the Smith physical education curriculum. Berenson also brought remedial gymnastics to students with special physical needs. In 1901, she introduced the sport of field hockey to Smith, and she assisted in the formation of the Smith College Gymnastics and Field Association. As a part of her ongoing search for new physical education and sports activities to bring to Smith, Berenson was the second American woman to attend the Royal Central Institute of Gymnastics in Stockholm, Sweden, where she studied advanced fencing.

The rules of women's basketball were not implemented in a orderly way once other American schools discovered basketball. In 1901, the sporting goods company A.G. Spalding published the first Women's Basketball Guide, edited by Berenson. Also in 1901, Berenson wrote the first ever women's basketball text, entitled Line Basket Ball for Women, which provided not only rules for playing the game, but also Berenson's philosophy regarding the sport's positive psychological and physiological effects on women.

In 1905, Berenson organized the Basketball Committee for Women and she chaired the organization until 1917. This committee later became known as the National Association for Girls and Women in Sport.

Upon her retirement from education in 1921, Berenson devoted her time to other pursuits, most particularly the study of art and music.

In considering the impact of Berenson's contributions to basketball, it is clear that on one level, her version of the game was eclipsed by the desire of female athletes to play basketball as a sport, as opposed to basketball cast as a strictly female activity. The modern game played at the high school, university, and professional levels by women bears no resemblance to the almost dainty sport devised by Berenson in 1893.

The importance of Berenson's contributions to female sport in America are not rooted exclusively in her rules of basketball, but in the ethos that women be given an opportunity to play a sport on their own terms. It is this determination and effort on the part of Berenson that makes her a true women's sports pioneer. Berenson was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1984, and she was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999.

SEE ALSO Basketball; Gender in sports: Female athletes; Title IX and United States female sports participation.