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What Was the Story Behind the First Women’s College Basketball Game?

Margaret Lipman
By
Updated May 16, 2024
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With surging viewership and huge interest in the rising stars of the game, women’s basketball is arguably more popular than ever before. Earlier this month, for the first time in history, more viewers tuned in to watch the final game of the women’s NCAA basketball championship than the final of the men’s championship. In recent years, players like Iowa’s Caitlin Clark have dramatically increased interest in women’s college basketball (and, consequently, the WNBA).

Women’s college basketball had a modest beginning, dating back to the Smith College gymnasium in 1893. Less than two years after James Naismith wrote down the 13 rules he had invented for a new sport in Springfield, Massachusetts, Smith College athletic director Senda Berenson, later known as “The Mother of Women’s Basketball," organized the first women’s college basketball game between freshmen and sophomores at the school.

Berenson was born in Lithuania to a Jewish family that immigrated to Boston during her childhood. Although she had been keenly interested in literature, art, and music (especially piano) from a young age, Berenson’s true passion turned out to be physical exercise. She became an advocate of Swedish gymnastics, which had made a significant difference to her own health and wellness. This led to a job offer from the all-female Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, first as a gymnastics coach and later as the athletic director.

Berenson, just 25 at the time, had read about Naismith’s invention of basketball in December 1891 and thought that the indoor game had great promise to motivate female students to enjoy the benefits of physical activity, especially during the cold New England winters. On March 22, 1893, Berenson officiated a friendly match between a freshman and sophomore team, with around 800 female students as spectators (no men were allowed to watch, as would become the norm for early women’s basketball). The hoops were two wastebaskets hung from the ceiling, with each basket worth one point. By the conclusion of the game, which was made up of two 15-minute halves and a 10-minute intermission, the sophomores had won 5-4, earning a colorful banner for their efforts. In the spirit of friendly competition, they served refreshments after the game to the freshman team.

Berenson’s rules for women’s basketball were significantly different than those used in the men’s game. Rather than fierce competition, the focus was on maintaining “grace and dignity and self-respect.” Initially, there was little movement during women’s basketball games. The court was divided into three sections, with players required to stay in their respective areas. There was a maximum of three dribbles, a three-second time limit on holding the ball, and no snatching the ball away from an opponent. Berenson’s rules were published by Spalding in 1901 and, after revisions in 1913 and 1915, remained intact until the 1960s, despite numerous efforts to make the women’s game more competitive.

Women take to the court:

  • It didn’t take long before basketball was being played by female college students across the United States, though women’s sports in general faced significant opposition from the athletic establishment. In 1896, Stanford defeated the University of California in the first intercollegiate women’s game.

  • Berenson’s other contributions to Smith College involved introducing folk dancing, fencing, field hockey, and volleyball, all with rules adapted for women. She died in 1954 at the age of 85 and was posthumously inducted, along with Margaret Wade, as one of the first two women in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1985.

  • In April 2024, 18.9 million people tuned in to the women’s NCAA championship game, in which South Carolina defeated Iowa 87-75. The men’s final, in which UConn beat Purdue 75-60, had 14.8 million viewers. As recently as 2016, the women’s final had fewer than 3 million viewers.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Margaret Lipman
By Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range of topics. Her articles cover essential areas such as finance, parenting, health and wellness, nutrition, educational strategies. Margaret's writing is guided by her passion for enriching the lives of her readers through practical advice and well-researched information.
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Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range...
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