Women You Missed in History Class: Senda Berenson Abbott

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Senda Berenson Abbott (1868-1954)

Since March is both Women’s History Month and March Madness, it is only appropriate that I highlight Senda Berenson Abbott, the mother of women’s basketball.  She was born Senda Valvrojenski on March 19, 1868 in Vilna, Lithuania, and immigrated to the United States with her family when she was seven years old.  Her father then changed the family name to Berenson as part of their Westernization.  Abbott’s father had been an observant Jew in Lithuania, but in Boston, he insisted that his family assimilate, and Abbott grew up observing some Jewish rituals, but speaking only English and attending Boston Latin Academy.  As a child, Abbott was described as “frail and delicate” and was often sick.  She showed little interest in athletics, preferring art and music, but when her poor health prevented her from taking piano lessons, she began attending the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics in 1890 in an attempt to improve her physical health.  Though she really struggled with the exercises at first, by the end of her first year she had shown such a profound improvement that she enrolled for a second year.  She studied anatomy, physiology, and hygiene, and was hired as the head of the Gymnastics program at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1892.

Abbott began working at Smith College just one month after James Naismith invented a new game called “basket ball” in nearby Springfield, Massachusetts.  Abbott met Naismith at a physical education conference at Yale University in 1892.  Berenson was finding it difficult to convince the students and faculty at Smith of the importance of exercise for young women at a time when exercise was seen as unfeminine.  Her students were often unenthusiastic about the gymnastic exercises she taught.  When she heard about Naismith’s new game, she wondered if it would be a good activity for her students.  Naismith encouraged her to try it, and in 1893, Abbott organized the first game of women’s basketball at Smith College.  Although the first game was played by Naismith’s rules, subsequent games were played by a modified set of rules designed to make the game more “appropriate” for women.  The court was divided into three regions, and players were not allowed to leave their assigned region.  Players could not dribble the ball more than three times or steal the ball from an opponent.  These modifications were made with the intention of avoiding the “roughness” of Naismith’s game and preventing “nervous fatigue” among female players.

That may not sound like the most progressive view of women’s basketball, but keep in mind that this was the 19th century.  Team sports for women were virtually unheard of and were considered too rigorous for women.  Abbott’s students were not accustomed to playing team sports, and didn’t take to Naismith’s rules, although they enjoyed the concept of the game.  Abbott’s modified rules made basketball more accessible to women of the time, who had never played a team sport before in their lives and had more or less been discouraged from any athletic activity at all.  Abbott’s goal wasn’t to get women playing sports at the same level as men, but rather to get them playing at all.  She believed women’s sports could combat gender inequality.  She noticed that one of the reasons given for refusing to hire women and paying them less than men was than women were perceived as weak and sickly, so she believed that women “need, therefore, all the more to develop health and endurance if they desire to become candidates for equal wages.”  She also saw team sports as a way to foster cooperation, decision making, and emotional and intellectual development in women.

After Abbott’s success introducing basketball to the women of Smith College, the game became so popular that Berenson published the first official rule book for women’s basketball, which was published by the Spalding Athletic Library in 1901.  In 1905, Berenson formed the United States Basket Ball Committee and served as its chair until 1917.  She retired from physical education in 1921 and died in 1984 at the age of 86.  By that time, women’s basketball had spread to colleges and clubs around the country.  Senda Berenson Abbott revolutionized women’s sports, opening doors for women and girls to participate in athletics in ways that had previously been available only to boys and men.  the success of women’s basketball inspired the development of field hockey, women’s volleyball, and other team sports for women.  For her contribution to basketball and to women’s sports, Abbot became the first woman inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1984.

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