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History of Women’s Basketball

— From Berenson to Bolton, Women’s Hoops Has Been Rising for 100 Years

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.

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.”

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.Ah, yes. my sisters.

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.

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.”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.

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

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.)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.

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.