March Madness: 19thc Women’s Basketball

I’m in the midst of a family emergency at the moment, which is fortunately beginning to wane. In the meantime, since March Madness is upon us, I thought I would re-post this tidbit about the beginnings of women’s basketball.

And if you will pardon the the personal bias…go, Lady Huskies! 😉

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.

The first intercollegiate women’s game was on April 4, 1896. Stanford women played Berkeley, 9-on-9, ending in a 2-1 Stanford victory.


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)


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5 thoughts on “March Madness: 19thc Women’s Basketball”

  1. Kerry MeachamKerry Meacham

    Hi K.B.,

    My dad coached high school girls basketball in Tennessee from 1969-1974, and the rules were for a split court. Three girls from each team on each half of the court. Each half court had three girls on offence and three on defense. It was much slower than the boys game, but the girls had really good shooting form and ball handling skills.

    The county where I grew up was very small, with less than 100 students graduating each year in the entire county. There were no other sports for girls at this school, so he had all the female athletes. This was also before limited practices, so they practiced and played scrimmages all year long.


  2. Margot KinbergMargot Kinberg

    Sorry to hear you’re up against it, Kathy. I hope things settle out soon. Thanks for sharing this interesting info!

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