Senda Berenson (Abbott), nicknamed the “Mother of Women’s Basketball,” was born on March 19, 1868, in Baltramentz (Butrimonys), a town near Vilna, Lithuania. Seven years later Berenson’s family immigrated to Boston and changed the family name from Valvrojenski to Berenson, To improve her health, Berenson was sent to the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics, where she began her career as teaching physical education. Her brother was the art historian Bernard Berenson.
Berenson became the first director of physical education at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, in January 1892, a month after James Naismith invented basketball in nearby Springfield. She would remain at Smith College for 19 years.
Berenson visited Naismith to learn the game and adopted it for her female students. On March 22, 1893, Berenson conducted the first official women’s basketball game between Smith sophomores and freshmen, with no male spectators allowed.
In 1899, she modified the rules of men’s basketball to avoid the roughness of the men's game and stressing a refined game that favored socialization and cooperation over competition and winning. Her rules included dividing the court into three areas, with two players permanently designated for each area; eliminated stealing the ball; limited dribbling to three bounces; and restricted a player from holding the ball longer than three seconds.
She was editor of Spalding’s Official Basketball Guide for Women from 1899 to 1916 and served as chairperson of the United States Women’s Basketball Committee (1905–17).
She left Smith in 1911 after marrying Herbert Vaughan Abbott, a professor of English at Smith, and chaired the physical education department at the Mary A. Burnham School in Northampton until 1921. In 1934, she moved to Santa Barbara, California where she died on February 16, 1952.
On July 1, 1985, she was inducted along with Margaret Wade and Bertha Teague as the first female members of the Basketball Hall of Fame. She was also in the first class of women inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999.
Sources: “Senda Berenson (1868-1954),” American Jewish Historical Society, American Jewish Desk Reference, (NY: Random House, 1999) pg. 285;
“Senda Berenson,” International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame;
Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved;
Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame;
Ross Atkin Staff, “Basketball Hall of Fame ushers in its first women inductees,” Christian Science Monitor, (July 5, 1985).
Picture courtesy of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.