The game of basketball was invented in 1891 by James Naismith for the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in Massachusetts.
In 1892, Senda Berenson Abbott started the first women’s basketball program at Smith College, making modifications to the rules for women’s play.
|Smith College, 1895|
Women’s rules divided the court into two or more zones, with two players from each team limited to each zone. Dribbling more than three times was forbidden, as was blocking, stealing the ball from another player, or holding the ball for more than three seconds.
In 1892, the University of California and Miss Head’s School played the first women’s interinstitutional game. Berenson’s freshmen played the sophomore class in the first women’s intercollegiate basketball game at Smith College, March 21, 1893. The same year, students from Mount Holyoke and Sophie Newcomb Colleges began playing basketball.
By 1895, the game had spread to colleges across the country, including Wellesley, Vassar, and Bryn Mawr.
Women at the University of Wisconsin formed a team in 1897 that played games against Milwaukee Normal School and local high school teams.
|Wilson College, around 1897|
|Smith College, class of 1902 (probably taken 1900)|
The women’s rules created a game that was slower-moving and more stationary, and therefore would not tax a woman’s “delicate system.” The nature of the activity, of course, necessitated shortened skirts, bloomers and stockings, which was considered rather scandalous. In fact, male spectators were barred at Smith.
Even as women avidly embraced the sport, a backlash was growing against it. The biggest problem was that the inherently aggressive nature of competition clashed with notions of “ladylike” behavior. If a lady lost her self-control in the heat of competition, what would be the unseemly result?
|Smith College, around 1900 (Berenson holding the ball)|