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The Woman Who Thought Nice Women Could Play Basketball Is Born

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Exterior of Alumnae Gymnasium at Smith College. The upper windows look into the gymnasium where the first women's basketball games were played in 1892.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

March 19, 1868, is the birthdate of Senda Berenson Abbott, who, as a physical education teacher at New England’s Smith College, adapted the fledgling game of basketball for play by proper women. The game became a huge and rapid success, earning the Lithuanian-born Berenson the sobriquet of “mother of women’s basketball.”

Senda Valvrojenski was born in Butrimonys, some 65 kilometers southwest of Vilna, in the Russian empire. Her father, Alter Valvrojenski, a lumber merchant, had grown up in a traditional shtetl family, before finding himself drawn to the cosmopolitan, secular values of the Jewish Enlightenment. Her mother was the former Julia Mickleshanski.

A fire that destroyed his home and business, and a growing desire to escape what he considered the stifling strictures of Jewish Orthodoxy, impelled Alter, in 1874, to join a cousin, Louis Berenson, in Boston, Massachusetts. There he too anglicized both his proper name and his surname, to Albert Berenson.

Despite his education and sophistication, Albert was never able to rise above the rank of peddler of pots and pans, and when he brought over the rest of his family, in 1875, he was determined that they would become Americanized. The family would speak English at home, and ceased its attendance at synagogue. Senda’s older brother, Bernard, did not even celebrate his bar mitzvah.

Bernard Berenson attended the prestigious Boston Latin School, and then Harvard College, after which he relocated to Florence, Italy, where, as an expert on Renaissance painting, he became one of the 20th century’s most-well known art historians and advisors to galleries and collectors.

Overcoming physical odds

Senda studied at Girls’ Latin, the sister school to Boston Latin, but because of frail health, she didn’t complete high school. She also was a serious student of piano at the Boston Conservatory of Music, but also gave that up of because of problems with her back.

Though she lacked a high school diploma, Senda convinced Mary Hemenway and Amy Morris Homans, the founder and director, respectively, of the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics, to admit her to their college’s rigorous program, which had adopted an innovative system of gymnastics that Hemenway had encountered at Sweden’s Royal Central Institute of Gymnastics.

After a difficult trial year, Berenson, whose condition improved dramatically, went on to a second year at the Normal School. It would later recommend her for a position as a phys-ed instructor, first at a high school in Andover, and then at Smith College for women, in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Nice women don’t dribble?

Smith had a modern new gymnasium, but still was conflicted about the need and propriety of having young women partake of exercise. Berenson had no doubts, but found her female students to have only limited interest in Swedish gymnastics.

When she heard, however, about a new game called basketball, invented by James Naismith at the YMCA Training Center, in nearby Springfield, MA, she decided to try it out at Smith.

Of course, Berenson adapted the rules for women, since basketball, she had noted, had a “tendency to roughness.” She divided the court into three regions, which players were not permitted to leave, and limited the dribbling and running allowed, in favor of passing.

These rules remained in place until the 1960s. Only women were allowed to be present at games, and Berenson did not believe in intercollegiate play.

Senda Berenson, whose demure, enigmatic smile in her photos evokes the Mona Lisa studied by her brother, remained at Smith until shortly after her marriage to a Smith English professor, Herbert Vaughn Abbott. She was also responsible for introducing field hockey, fencing and folk dancing. After she wed, she became athletic director at a girls boarding school in Northampton.

After her husband’s death, in 1929, she moved to Santa Barbara, California, where a sister lived, and where she died, on February 16, 1954, at the age of 85.

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