Smith College gymnastics instructor Senda Berenson began to teach “Basket Ball” in the winter of 1892, less than a year after James Naismith invented the game in nearby Springfield, Mass., in December 1891.
The very idea of women playing a team sport hadn’t occurred to many people back then. Even the idea of physical education for women — gymnastics, mostly — was novel. But versions of Berenson’s rules quickly spread throughout YMCAs and women’s colleges.
Berenson had met some of the right people at the right time. She enrolled in the Boston School of Gymnastics to improve her health, and there met people who helped her get a job at Smith College. Smith had recently built the Alumnae Gymnasium, one of the first athletic facilities built for women in the United States.
She was an unlikely jock. A delicate child, she gave up the piano because she was too frail to practice for long. A Jewish immigrant, she married an English professor who wrote a book of Protestant hymns. And when she built up her strength and started teaching physical education, her brother tried to persuade her to give it up for art.
She was born Senda Valvrojenski on March 19, 1868, to a Jewish family in in Vilnius, Lithuania. She had one older brother, Bernard, who became a renowned art critic and advisor to Isabella Stewart Gardner. Her father, Albert, decided to immigrate to Boston’s West End, where he worked as a peddler of pots and pans. In 1875, after a year in the United States, he sent for his family.
Albert changed his name to Berenson and insisted his family learn English, stop attending synagogue and adopt Western ways. Senda attended the Girls’ Latin School, while her brother went to Boston Latin. She didn’t graduate, but Bernard did and went to Harvard. Senda tried to study piano at the Boston Conservatory of Music, but dropped out because of her poor health. Bernard then moved to Europe after graduation.
Eventually, Senda heard about the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics, founded by philanthropist Mary Hemenway to teach young women Swedish gymnastics. Senda decided to give it a try so she could gain enough strength to play the piano. At first she hated her classes, but stuck with it. Within a year, she went from having trouble standing for five minutes to doing two hours of exercise daily.
She started going twice weekly to the elementary school in Andover, Mass., where she taught Swedish gymnastics. When Smith’s gymnastics instructor fell ill, Senda was recommended as a substitute.
She stayed for nearly two decades, an evangelical for physical fitness. Senda wanted Smith to make physical education mandatory for two years, but she swam against the current. In 1894, she described the prevailing attitude toward women.
Until recent years, the so-called ideal woman was a small waisted, small footed, small brained damsel, who prided herself on her delicate health, who thought fainting interesting, and hysterics fascinating.
Some of her students had less enthusiasm for exercise than she did. So she decided to come up with something fun, something that would attract them to gym class.
Girls didn’t play team sports in Victorian New England. But Senda taught them how to play the game invented by James Naismith in nearby Springfield, Mass. One girl wrote home to her mother that the game was “great fun.” In the first college women’s basketball game, a freshman team played a sophomore team on March 22, 1893. The sophomores won, 5-4, before a crowd of all-women spectators.
The Smithies originally played with a soccer ball and wastebaskets, but each team had nine players. The court was divided into three sections, with three players in each. The ball was moved by passing or dribbling three times. Players weren’t allowed to snatch or bat the ball away from opposing players, and a center jump was tossed after each basket.
The rules were meant to prevent the young ladies from developing “dangerous nervous tendencies and losing the grace and dignity and self-respect we would all have her foster.”
Senda Berenson Abbott
She asked her students how they felt about basketball. Most told her they’d improved in endurance, lung capacity, alertness, courage and toughness.
In 1911, Senda Berenson left the Smith faculty by marrying an English professor, Herbert Vaughan Abbott. Her father would have been proud of her complete westernization: Abbott published a book, The Plymouth Hymnal: For the Church, the Social Meeting and the Home.
Senda would write, too, not just books on basketball rules but letters to her brother Bernard. Living the life of an art connoisseur in Europe, he was not one for basketball. His sister argued that play — for enjoyment, for teamwork, for health — was a form of art.
Senda Berenson Abbott died on Feb. 16, 1954. She was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1985 and into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999.
This story updated in 2022.