Later known as the “Mother of Women’s Basketball,” Senda Berenson was a delicate child and enrolled in the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics to improve her strength. She began teaching at Smith College at twenty-three and soon discovered a new game called “Basket Ball.” She decided to adapt the sport for women players, despite the fact that at the time women only played individual sports because team sports were thought too dangerous. Berenson refereed the first official game of women’s basketball in 1893; within two years, there were hundreds of teams across the country. Berenson developed the rulebook for women’s college basketball, and many of the rules she created remained in force for the next seventy years.
Known as the “Mother of Women’s Basketball,” Senda Berenson pioneered women’s basketball as the director of the physical education department at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.
She was born Senda Valvrojenski in Vilna, Lithuania, on March 19, 1868. Her father, Albert Valvrojenski, immigrated to the United States in 1874, settled in Boston, became a peddler, and changed the family’s name to Berenson. Berenson was a frail seven-year-old when she immigrated to Boston in 1875 with her mother, older brother Bernard, and younger brother Abie. Senda Berenson’s two sisters, Elizabeth and Rachel, were born in Boston in 1878 and 1880, respectively.
According to biographer Betty Spears, “Mr. Berenson demanded that the family become Americanized as quickly as possible. He insisted that the family speak only English and that they sever all connections with the Jewish religion. … In 1880, Mr. Berenson became an American citizen, making the entire family American citizens.”
Weak and delicate throughout her childhood, Berenson was tutored by her father in reading and languages. She was unable to complete her training at the Boston Conservatory of Music because of her health. In an effort to improve her strength and vigor, she attended the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics in Boston from 1890 to 1892. There she was trained in anatomy, physiology, and hygiene to teach gymnastics. Then, at age twenty-three, she began her teaching career at Smith College.
Developing Women’s Basketball
Within a year after joining the staff at Smith College, Berenson read about a new game then called “Basket Ball” that had been invented as a class exercise for boys. She observed the game being played at the YMCA Training Center in Springfield and attended a physical education conference at Yale University. At that convention, she met the game’s inventor, Dr. James Naismith, and received his encouragement to adopt the sport as a team exercise for her female students. Women of that time did not participate in team sports, which were viewed as too strenuous. They did participate in individual sports such as horseback riding, hiking, rowing, swimming, golf, fencing, archery, and tennis.
On March 22, 1893, Berenson conducted the first official game of women’s basketball, pitting the Smith sophomores against the freshmen. At that game, no male spectators were allowed. The new game soon swept the country, and by 1895, there were hundreds of women’s basketball teams. The success of basketball also opened the door to other team sports programs for women.
At a time when women did not hold leadership positions in sports, Berenson wrote and developed the official rule book for women’s collegiate basketball as well as numerous articles on the new sport. The first official publication of its kind, Basket Ball for Women, was published by the Spalding Athletic Library in 1899, with Berenson as its editor. She continued to edit the rules until the 1916–1917 issue. Many of the rules that she developed for women’s basketball were the standard ones used for seventy years.
Later Career and Legacy
In 1905, Berenson was appointed chair of the basketball rules committee of the American Association for the Advent of Physical Education, the forerunner of the National Association for Girls and Women in Sports, whose mandate was to study the various interpretations of women’s basketball rules. She served on this committee until 1917.
On January 15, 1911, Berenson married Herbert Vaughn Abbott, an English professor at Smith College. She resigned her post at Smith and became the director of physical education at Burnham School, a private girls’ school, where she remained until 1921.
Senda Berenson died in Santa Barbara, California, on February 16, 1954. In 1984, her contributions to basketball were recognized when Senda Berenson Abbott became the first woman to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
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