History of Women's Basketball

By Sally Jenkins


Gymnastics instructor Senda Berenson Abbott adapts James Naismith's basketball rules for women and introduces the game at Smith College.

First inter-institutional contest between the University of California and Miss Head's School.

Clara Gregory Baer, a physical educator, introduces basketball to girls at Sophie Newcomb College, New Orleans.

March 13, 1895
Baer publishes Basquette, the first set of basketball rules for women.

April 4, 1896
The first women's intercollegiate game takes place at the Armory Hall in San Francisco between Stanford and Cal. Stanford won the contest 2-1.

First "official" publication of Basket Ball for Women (three-court game) by the Spalding Athletic Library with Berenson as editor.

Halves shortened from 20 to 15 minutes.

Six to nine players on a team; game called by 11 officials.
Executive Committee on Basket Ball Rules (National Women's Basketball Committee) forms under the auspices of the American Physical Education Association.

No coaching during game (except halftime).

Rewriting of rules to conform to men's wording and sequence.
Basket with open bottom instead of a closed basket with pullchain became official.

Dr. J. Anna Norris publishes the Official Basket Ball Guide for Women.



  • International Women's Sports Federation is formed and hosts its version of the Olympics; women's basketball is included in the competition.
    Publication of The Sportswoman magazine (1924-36).

    37 states hold high school varsity basketball and/or state tournaments.

    The Amateur Athletic Union sponsors the first-ever national women's basketball championship, using men's rules.

    Formation of an All American Red Heads Team; used men's rules and competed against men's teams.

    Three-court game changes to two-court game, six players per team.

    The USA women's basketball team wins the gold in the World Championships.

    The Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (CIAW) hosts its first of three "national championships" of women's college basketball. West Chester State College wins.

    Five-player, full-court game is adopted.
    30-second shot clock is introduced.

    President Richard Nixon signs Title IX of the Educational Amendment of 1972, stating that "no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal assistance."

    March 19, 1972
    The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women holds its first women's collegiate basketball championship. Immaculata College defeated West Chester State, 52-48.

    First year of scholarships for women in AIAW.

    The Women's Sports Foundation is formed.

    March 20-23, 1974
    The AIAW's women's collegiate basketball national championships gain television and radio coverage for the first time.

    Jan. 27, 1975
    Immaculata College defeats the University of Maryland, 85-63, in the first-ever regular-season, nationally televised game.

    Feb. 22, 1975
    Immaculata College defeats Queens College, 65-61, before approximately 12,000 fans in the first women's college game played in Madison Square Garden.

    March 1975
    The Eastman Kodak Company sponsors the inaugural Women's Basketball Coaches Clinic in conjunction with the national women's basketball collegiate championships, marking the first women's basketball corporate sponsorships.
    Kodak also sponsors the first-ever All-America Team.

    July 1976
    Women's basketball debuts at the Montreal Olympics. At 18, Nancy Lieberman becomes the youngest basketball player in Olympic history to win a medal when the U.S. takes silver.

    November 1976
    Mel Greenberg, a journalist from the Philadelphia Inquirer, compiles and releases the first women's basketball Top 20 national poll.

    First Broderick Cup is awarded for most outstanding athlete in AIAW. Luisa Harris, Delta State, wins.

    March 1978
    First AIAW national televised basketball championship game (the game was taped-delayed one day on NBC's Sportsworld). UCLA beats Maryland before a record crowd of 9,351.
    The inaugural Margaret Wade Trophy, named after the Delta State coach who led her team to three consecutive AIAW titles, is awarded to Carol Blazejowski of Montclair State.

    Dec. 9, 1978
    The first game of the Women's Professional Basketball League (WBL) took place between the Chicago Hustle and Milwaukee Does. The eight-team league lasted three seasons.

    Aug. 30, 1979
    Ann Meyers, 24, four-time All-America at UCLA, signs a one-year, $50,000 contract with the NBA's Indiana Pacers. Meyers receives a tryout, but does not make the team.

    Last year of AIAW National Championships.
    First year of NAIA Women's National Championships.
    First NCAA Women's National Championships.
    Women's Basketball Coaches Association formed.

    USA National Team beats USSR team.

    March 28, 1982
    Louisiana Tech defeats Cheney State, 76-62, to win the first NCAA Women's Basketball championship.

    October 1982
    The AIAW folds after losing its anti-trust lawsuit against the NCAA.

    The Women's Basketball Coaches Association and Naismith Player of the Year awards are given for the first time.

    The U.S. women's basketball team captures its first Olympic gold medal in Los Angeles.
    The NCAA introduces a smaller basketball for women.

    Berenson Abbott, Bertha Teague and Margaret Wade are inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, the first women to be enshrined.

    Former University of Kansas guard Lynette Woodard, 28, becomes the first woman to play for the Harlem Globetrotters.

    Lieberman, 28, becomes the first woman to play in a men's pro basketball league when she joins the USBL's Springfield Fame.

    Lieberman joins the Washington Generals, which tours with the Harlem Globetrotters.
    The NCAA introduces the three-point shot to women's collegiate basketball.

    USA wins gold medal at the Seoul Olympics.

    June 1990
    Bernadette Locke becomes the first female Division I coach of a men's team when she joins the University of Kentucky as an assistant coach to Rick Pitino.

    The Liberty Basketball Association is launched. It featured shorter courts, lower rims and unitards. The league folds after one exhibition game.

    The Women's World Basketball Association is launched in the Midwest with six teams. It folds shortly thereafter.
    The U.S. wins the bronze medal at the Barcelona Olympics.

    The Women's Basketball Hall of Fame is planned for Knoxville, Tenn. The Hall of Fame is scheduled to open in 1999.

    November 1994
    The inaugural 16-team women's preseason National Invitation Tournament (NIT) is held.

    The first United States Senior Women's National Team compiles an undefeated record of 52-0 against NCAA and international opponents.

    April 24, 1996
    The NBA Board of Governors approves of the Women's National Basketball Association concept.

    Aug. 4, 1996
    The U.S. women recapture the gold medal in the Centennial Olympics in Atlanta.

    Oct. 18, 1996
    The ABL tipped off its first season with eight teams.

    Oct. 23, 1996
    The first players, Rebecca Lobo and Sheryl Swoopes, are signed to play in the WNBA. They are soon followed by Olympic teammate Lisa Leslie.

    Oct. 30, 1996
    Eight cities (Charlotte, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Sacramento and Utah) are selected to be homes to the WNBA's charter teams.

    Feb. 27, 1997
    The WNBA holds its Elite Draft for 16 signed veteran players.

    April 28, 1997
    The WNBA holds its draft for college players and unsigned veterans. Tina Thompson of USC is the first pick.

    June 21, 1997
    The inaugural WNBA season begins.


    Women's basketball has come a long way from its humble beginnings in 1892.


    It may be surprising to discover that women began playing basketball less than a year after the game was invented. The fact is that women's basketball is steeped in tradition, some of it frustrating, most of it fascinating.


    We were looking for the perfect 90s person to tell the story, and we needed a passionate, perceptive individual - someone who had experienced everything basketball had to offer. We were very fortunate to find our very own basketball Everywoman.


    Pardon me while I loosen my corset. There, that's better. If a girl is going to narrate the history of women's basketball and all of its frail Victorian lace-clad horrors, she's got to be able to breathe. How we moved in these things, I don't know. But that's just the point. When I began playing basketball in 1892, one year after it was invented by the original Dr. J, women's outerwear and underwear were concealing and constricting. We weren't supposed to move. Everyone thought we would get the torpors, or the vapors, or whatever you call them, and fall to the floor in a swoon and have to be revived with salts.



    The only body parts we exposed to the public were fingers, necks and heads. Miniskirts were a thing of the future. Proper women wore floor-length dresses everywhere, including the basketball court. That led to a few proper broken bones and proper black eyes, because we had a tendency to trip over our hems. Can you imagine trying to pivot in a petticoat and pink slippers adorned with rosettes? Somehow, we managed. But it was a great moment in the infancy of women's basketball when bloomers were introduced at Sophie Newcomb College in New Orleans by Clara Gregory Baer, in 1896. They were championed by, of all things, a man.


    Dr. Edward Morton Schaeffer wrote a ringing diatribe against the corset, calling it a "figure and health-wrecking contrivance." He urged active modern women to "burst all confining fetters and curtail necessary impediments of costume," and to adopt a divided skirt to ease our locomotion when exercising. After all, Schaeffer pointed out, ancient women of the Far East invented trousers in the first place. Men didn't start wearing them until conquering Persians took them from us. So these WNBA players today, in their fashionable pants, are wearing what belonged to them in the first place. A woman in pants, Schaeffer argued, is "simply receiving stolen property."


    Who would like more tea? I'd pour, but my pin curls are wound so tightly to my head that I don't think I can reach. Anyway, a Smith girl, Senda Berenson, was the foremother of women's basketball - the visionary responsible for bringing basketball to the kinder, gentler sex. James Naismith, the aforementioned Dr. J, invented the game in 1891 because his superiors at a Springfield Massachusetts YMCA school ordered him to create an indoor activity for his overly aggressive young students during harsh winter months when they had no outdoor outlet available for the venting of massive amounts of testosterone.


    They were, to be kind, a bit unruly.


    Berenson read an article that Naismith wrote and wondered if the game would be a good activity for women. At the time, those words "gender equity" didn't exist. It was another three decades before we were allowed to vote for a president. We were thought of - even by ourselves - as wilting and subservient. If we had suggested that we could play a man's game like a man, it would have outraged men and women alike. Even Berenson worried that we might suffer from "nervous fatigue" if games were too strenuous. So she adapted the rules to make it easier for women to play and more acceptable for society matrons to embrace. She divided the court into three sections and required the players to stay in their assigned areas. To insure womanly decorum among her pupils, Berenson forbade snatching the ball, holding it for more than three seconds, or dribbling it more than three times. In this way, Berenson hoped to prevent a young lady from developing "dangerous nervous tendencies and losing the grace and dignity and self respect we would all have her foster."


    But for all of Berenson's antique-sounding notions, she was actually a progressive woman for her time, Berenson recognized that one of the most common arguments against giving women equal pay at work was that they were prone to illness. "They need, therefore , all the more to develop health and endurance if they desire to become candidates for equal wages," she said.


    blue rule
    Pardon me while I loosen my corset. There, that's better. If a girl is going to narrate the history of women's basketball and all of its frail Victorian lace-clad horrors, she's got to be able to breathe.
    blue rule

    Barely 11 months after Berenson introduced the game at Smith, the first official game between two institutions took place when the University of California-Berkeley played the Miss Head's school. By 1893, the women of Mt. Holyoke and Sophie Newcomb were playing, too. By 1895, the game was played all across the country, most prominently at Wellesley, Vassar and Bryn Mawr. The rules depended on where it was played and committees met endlessly to discuss regulations. Even then, we loved to caucus.


    Sometimes we used men's regulations; other times we used the curtailed versions played by Smith. Technique also varied. The one-hand set shot was considered the most elegant form of shooting among southern girls at Sophie Newcomb. The two-handed throw was declared a foul because it caused the shoulder to fowardly incline, "with a consequent flattening of the chest."


    But no sooner had basketball taken hold in women's colleges that an outcry arose that it was eroding sacred concepts of woman-hood. Previously well-bred young ladies could be seen running and falling, shrieking in excitement and, worst of all, calling each other by nicknames.


    (Yo, Queenie! Take her out!)


    Games would end with handkerchiefs and hair pins scattered all over gymnasium floors. It befuddled some of the lovable rockheads who were writing about it. One article in the Los Angeles Times had a headline that said: "Sweet Things Have Scrap." It went on to furnish details of a high school game that included a lot of hair-pulling, tumbling and sliding. The reporter wrote: "There was something disquieting in the grim and murderous determinations with which the young ladies chased each other all over the court."


    The Bleps, of the 1920s, donned knit stockings.

    Ah, yes. my sisters.


    This masculine behavior was so scandalous a development that parents forbade their daughters to participate, and medical doctors and physical education instructors wrote long worried studies about the psychological and physical effects of the sport, calling for it to be abolished. But let me just say for the record that a good game of basketball never put me in as grim and murderous a mood as a patch of needlework did.


    A physical education teacher named Agnes Childs complained of these tendencies in 1905 in a Spalding guide to women's basketball. "There is an irresistible temptation when a ball is rolling along the floor for the players in the vicinity to go sliding after it; and nothing makes a game more rowdyish in appearance and causes more adverse criticism that this most natural temptations to go after the ball by the quickest means."


    Can anyone say N-A-N-C-Y L-I-E-B-E-R-M-A-N?


    Another leading physical education authority of the time, Agnes Wayman, proposed still more rule restrictions to make the game more compatible with popular views of femininity. She espoused "neatly combed hair, no gum chewing or slang, never calling each other by last names and never lying or sitting down on the floor."


    Berenson, too, recognized that if the game did not improve its reputation for womanliness, we might not be allowed to play it. She also struck on the ideas of aligning games to social affairs, serving refreshments or even elaborate dinners afterwards. This was known as the "Cookies and Milk" strategy.

    UCLA's Ann Meyers revolutionized the game in the 1970s.

    As women's basketball grew out of its infancy, we continued to struggle with somehow balancing our femininity with our athleticism. As the sporting woman gained acceptance, old passive definitions of beauty presented us with a dilemma. Men still wanted women to be beautiful, and we cared about our appearances, too. So, while we were seeking athletic acceptance, we also embraced advances in the cosmetic industry, were fascinated by the emergence of film queens and idolized the winner of the new Miss America Pageant.


    These diverse cultural tensions led to a fascinating fusion in the 1930s, when during the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) championship tournament, there was actually a competition called "Beauty Queen of Cage Meet."


    There is no record of the winner, but rumor has it that her last name might have been Leslie.

    Nancy Lieberman made a comeback for the WNBA's inaugural season in 1997 and then jumped to a head coaching spot in '98.

    In a comprehensive history of the game, a book called A Century of Women's Basketball: From Frailty to Final Four, another extraordinary story illustrates the tension between athleticism and femininity. In 1936, a team of gifted women called The Red Heads toured the country playing exhibitions against men's teams. Team members were required to wear makeup, look beautiful and play well.


    They were also required to either wear red wigs or, get this, dye their hair red. That's right. The Red Heads preceded Dennis Rodman by six decades. (Note to Dennis: OK, you got us with green, orange, purple and rainbow. But we had red first. Besides, we would have been more impressed if you had persuaded some of your teammates like Michael Jordan or David Robinson to wear wigs or dye their hair.)


    Obviously, progress was a long time coming. But it got here, inevitably. Not until 1924 did women self-govern their basketball competitions. The three-section court wasn't reduced to two sections until 1938, which was two years after men began playing basketball in the Olympic (the guys were nice enough to let us in 40 years later).


    In 1971, we were finally considered robust enough to play a full-court game, and in 1985, Senda Berenson became the first woman to make the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.


    Better late than never, I guess.


    But now, we are moving forward by leaps and bounds. We won the Olympic gold medal in 1996, and we got TV ratings. The women's college game is more popular than ever. Unprecedented numbers of girls and women are playing basketball. And here I am, ready to put on my sports bra, compression shorts and blissfully free-flowing WNBA uniform. We have arrived, with a new '90s attitude - 1990s, not 1890s.


    I beg your pardon? What's that you say? You would like more tea? I'm sorry, but as you've probably heard, I've got next.


    You'll probably have to get it yourself.


    SALLY JENKINS is a senior contributing writer for Conde Nast Women's Sports & Fitness. She has also co-written two best-selling books with University of Tennessee coach Pat Summitt.