The History of Basketball
Girls Want to Play, Too!

the history of basketball

Much of the history of basketball focuses on the evolution of the men's game. And for good reason.

The man who invented basketball designed it to solve a particular problem he had with his male college students. He needed a game they could play in the winter.

Back in 1891 when the game was created, there was little opportunity for women to participate in athletics. Athletic girls who wanted to compete were out of luck because sports competition for ladies was very much discouraged.

Nevertheless, as more and more people saw the game being played, its popularity exploded, and it wasn't long before girls wanted a piece of the action!

So, while men's basketball was booming, the history of basketball was unfolding for women as well.

This article will look at the following chapters in the evolution of the women's game:

The History of Basketball for Women

In the Beginning
The Game Heads South
Things Get a Little Wild Out West
The Game is Out of Control!
Major Early Rule Changes

It's interesting to note how the evolution of girls basketball mirrors the attitudes of American society toward women over the last century.

The History of Basketball for Women
In the Beginning

female basketball players

It only took about a month for the strange new game invented by James Naismith to catch the eye of a P.E. teacher at nearby Smith College, a school for women in Northampton, Massachusetts. Senda Berenson decided to create her own version of the game for her female students.

There was a big problem, though. The men's game she witnessed was incredibly rough, and she didn't believe women were suited for that style of play.

As a result, her version of the game was very different from Naismith's. In fact, it hardly resembles the women's basketball game we know today.

In addition to the original 13 rules, here are some of the highlights of Berenson's original rules. Notice how her basketball regulations try to maintain the "femininity" of the players by designing a game that wouldn't be too stressful on the "frail" female body.

  • She divided the basketball court into 3 sections, and players were confined to their assigned section. Players in the third of the court closest to the basket were the shooters. The players in the middle third were the passers who would help move the ball from one end of the basketball court to the other. Those in the section farthest from the goal were the defensive players and rebounders.
  • Stealing the ball from an opponent was illegal because such behavior was entirely too "masculine."
  • Every scored basket was followed by a jump ball at center court.
  • There was a 3-dribble limit, and a player could only hold the ball for 3 seconds. (This was an attempt to speed up a very slow-moving game.)
  • Since organized games between teams from different schools created too much competitiveness for girls, intramural contests were set up between teams of students from the same school. And to guard against rivalry of any kind, the team rosters were constantly changed.

Sound like the basketball rules we use today? Hardly.

By 1894, basketball for college girls was firmly entrenched in New England, and its influence began to spread around the country. 

The History of Basketball for Women
The Game Heads South

National Training School for Women and Girls

While Senda Berenson was creating her version of the game in New England, an entirely different version of the game was developing down South.

Clara Gregory Baer, the first instructor of Physical Culture at Sophie Newcomb Memorial College in New Orleans, heard about the game in 1892 and thought her students might enjoy it.

At this time, P.E. for women was a new concept in the South, and it was very controversial. It wasn't easy getting her students interested in physical education, and she thought basketball might be a sport her girls could get excited about.

She tried several times to play the game using the men's rules, but after receiving too many objections from parents that the game was too rough, she came up with her own rules in 1894. These rules turned out to be even more restrictive than Berenson's.

Here are some of the highlights of Baer's original basketball rules:

  • Her court was divided into a minimum of 7 rectangles, varying from 8' x 12' to 23' x 24' in size.
  • Players were not allowed to move unless the ball was in the air.
  • Players couldn't guard an opponent or block a shot.
  • Yelling or talking was not allowed during the game.
  • After every basket, the team's basket was switched to the opposite end, so there was a constant shift between offensive and defensive players. (This was an attempt to make sure that no girl dominated the game and became a star.)
  • Games could only be "friendly" intramural contests between classmates rather than contests between rival schools. (Remember, a spirit of competitiveness among female basketball players was not to be encouraged!)
  • She even coined a new name for her game at Naismith's suggestion. (Of course, he probably didn't want anyone confusing this ridiculous version of the game with the game he created!) She called it Basquette, a French word with an elegant flair, don't you think?

The first publicly played game in the South took place at the Southern Athletic Club in New Orleans with 11 players on each side and the floor divided into 11 squares.

Clara Baer was a leader among female educators, and she taught her version of the game to teachers all over the South. 

The History of Basketball for Women
Things Get a Little Wild Out West

While women were enjoying this new phenomenon back East and down South, a very different brand of basketball was being played on the West Coast. It was a rough-and-tumble version that would have horrified Berenson and Baer!

From the beginning, coaches scheduled games between rival schools. They didn't seem concerned about building competitiveness in women. This attitude very much reflected the wild, rugged life in the West.

November 18, 1892 in Berkeley, CA was the first recorded game between two West Coast schools. The University of California at Berkeley lost to Miss Head's School, a girls' preparatory high school, 6-5.

women's basketball match - Stanford vs Univ of Cal

During this game, there were 9 players on each side that were allowed to move freely all over the court.

It was described as a "game of football modified to suit feminine capabilities."

The first game between college teams on the West Coast took place on April 4, 1896 between Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley.

Stanford won a "barn burner" 2-1 before a crowd of 700 women.

In the beginning, only women were allowed to watch women's basketball games. However, it became very popular to play the games outside, and men were allowed to attend these games. 

The History of Basketball for Women
The Game is Out of Control!

As the popularity of women's basketball grew, so did concerns and complaints that the game had become too rough. In response, P.E. teachers nationwide wrestled with the question, "How do we tame girls basketball?"

Berenson and a group of P.E. teachers formed a committee to address these concerns as well as the problems that arose by having so many different versions of the game.

In 1901, the committee published the first set of basketball rules for women. Not surprisingly, they closely resembled Berenson's original design:

  • The court was divided into 3 equal divisions
  • Stealing the ball was not allowed
  • Holding the ball more than 3 seconds constituted a foul
  • Each player was only allowed 3 bounces of the ball 
  • Each team would play with 5-10 players depending on the court size

The rules reflect the emphasis on fostering a spirit of sharing and equal opportunity.

Many teams adopted these new rules, but many ignored them.

Unfortunately, the attempts to standardize the game and tame it didn't satisfy the critics' fears that the sport was too physically demanding on the female body.

Doctors at the time believed that running strained women's smaller hearts. They also cautioned against playing during the first 3 days of the menstrual cycle.

Lucille Eaton Hill of Wellesley College in Massachusetts was an outspoken critic of the game. She felt that the sport was harmful to the beauty and health of young female basketball players. She also believed the excitement of the game had an "evil influence on the emotional and nervous feminine nature."

In fact, coaches were not allowed to shout at their players. Even if they wanted to encourage their team or give them instructions, they had to keep quiet so they wouldn't upset or incite their players.

Overall, Ms. Hill was concerned that basketball would "unsex" the girls who played it. And she voiced her concerns publicly in 1903 at a meeting of the New England Association of Colleges and Prep Schools.  

Girls playing basketball at Pine Tree Camp, Pocono Pines, PA

The History of Basketball for Women
Major Early Rule Changes

In response, the committee revamped the rules in 1903. Compare these rules to the major rule changes happening in the men's game:


  • An out-of-bounds rule was instituted giving the ball to the opponent who knocked it out. Before there were any out of bounds rules, players went crazy chasing down loose balls, pushing and shouting down stairs and hallways. Some schools even erected chicken wire fences around their courts to eliminate these chases.
  • The number of players on the court went from 5-10 to 6-9. It was felt that 5 players put too much stress on some positions and 10 players caused too many collisions.
  • No substitutions were allowed.
  • The hoop still had a bottom in it, so play stopped after every basket to get the ball out.
  • Play stopped for foul shots, which included such violations as holding the ball longer than 3 seconds, stepping out of bounds, and double teaming a shooter.


  • The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) declared it would never permit girls to play basketball games in public places. They determined the game was too rough.


  • Dribbling was completely eliminated. Being allowed to dribble opened up the possibility that someone might hog the ball, a behavior that was very "unladylike."
  • Players were allowed 1 dribble after there were too many complaints that the tempo of the game was too slow and boring.
  • Defenders weren't allowed to block shots or steal the ball. Defensive restrictions like these were put into the game to level the playing field and compensate for differences in player sizes and skill levels.
  • Seasons were limited to only 2-4 games with other schools. The rest of the games had to be intramural games among classes. Again, this was to discourage competitiveness, which was certainly seen as "unladylike."

Believe it or not, Senda Berenson believed that she and the rules committee saved women's basketball with these ridiculous rules.


Because society wasn't ready yet for the game as we know it today. To be accepted by the public and receive support from the physical education community, it was important that female basketball players and coaches adhered to acceptable social behaviors. 

Want to learn more about the history of basketball for women? Click on this link to see how the game developed from the Roaring '20s until the birth of the WNBA.

For some good reading about the history of basketball for women, let me recommend a great book to you, A History of Basketball for Girls and Women: From Bloomers to Big Leagues, by Joanne Lannin. It provided a lot of the information for this article, but I have only touched the surface of the wealth of information it provides.

The history of basketball is not complete without learning about the birth of the NBA and some amazing NBA records that have been set over the years.

The equipment players use has seen a lot of changes throughout the history of basketball. Find out how basketball sizes, quality, and construction have changed over time.

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