In 1891 Dr. James Naismith invented the indoor game of basketball. The very same year women came to the court ready to play, although some slight modifications were made to their rules of the game. Senda Berenson, an instructor at Smith College in Northhampton, MA, was the first to bring the game to women. A peach basket was nailed to the lower railing on either end of the gym. In the very unlikely event that the ball actually made it in the basket, the janitor hung around with his ladder to retrieve it.
Senda Berenson made many modifications attempting to make the game more acceptable for women to play. The changes were made to lessen physical exertion and contact between players. The court was divided into three sections and a player was not allowed to leave her zone. Additionally, they were not allowed to snatch the ball, hold on to it for more then three seconds, or dribble the ball more than three times. Loud talking was banned from the court. In addition to these changes, refreshments or dinner was served after a game. This was done to make the game a more sociable affair.
In 1896, the first women’s intercollegiate basketball game was played between the University of California Berkley and Stanford in San Francisco. Stanford won, with a score of two to one. Male spectators were banned from the game due to the women’s inappropriate dress. Earlier that year, Clara Gregory Baer started the practice of having players wear their bloomers during the games. Previously, they had played in their floor length dresses. The dangerously long hemlines caused many trip-ups. In some cases, women left the court with bruises, black eyes, and even broken bones.
However, the protesting over the decency of women’s basketball continued in the universities. The competition was considered unladylike and scandalous. Women’s basketball fell out of favor with the young students. Fortunately, it began gaining popularity in the amateur and industrial leagues overseen by the Amateur Athletic Union, or AAU. The AAU sponsored the first national women’s basketball championship in 1926.
One of the earliest women’s basketball teams was the All American Redheads. The players were encouraged to look beautiful and play hard. Of course red hair was a necessity, which meant hair dyes or wigs for the blonds and brunettes. Other early teams were the Casualty Insurance Company’s Golden Cyclones and the Hazel Walker Arkansas Travelers. From 1915 to 1940 the Canadian Edmonton Grads played a total of 522 games. They traveled across Canada, the United States, and Europe playing men’s and women’s teams alike. They lost only 20 games.
Women’s basketball soared back in to popularity among college students during the 1960’s push for equality. The push worked. In 1972, Title IX was passed by the United States Government. This prohibited gender discrimination in educational programs. High schools and universities across the country began adding women’s sports to their curriculum. The first NCAA women’s championship game was played in 1982.
Forming a league for women’s basketball teams also seemed to have a rocky start. In 1978 the Women’s Professional Basketball League, or WBL, began with eight teams. After only three seasons, it folded. In 1991, the Liberty Basketball Association tried, but made it through only one exhibition game. The American Basketball League, otherwise known as the ABL, was founded five years later. The number of teams grew from eight to ten. However, halfway through the third season the league went bankrupt, forcing them to fold. Then in 1996, the WNBA was established. Networking was done and partnerships were formed with ESPN, NBC, and Lifetime. By the end of 2000, the league had grown to sixteen teams.
Women’s basketball has faced years of oppression and ridicule, but it pulled through with respect. The history of the sport is filled with courageous women who have opened the door for today’s great athletes. At one time a woman’s place may have been in the stands, but she is now taking over the court.