Contention on the Court: The Emergence of Women’s Basketball and Its Negotiations with Female Propriety

By Mercedes Townsend

In the same way defenders utilizing a “full court press” strategy limit the progression of their opponents across the court, hegemonic gender norms and expectations have historically and continuously stifled the progress of women’s basketball. Despite the gains of storied programs such as the UConn Huskies and University of Tennessee Lady Vols, and the growing efforts of the WNBA, women’s basketball players at all levels are subjected to abiding by traditional views of femininity. But this is not a new phenomenon. Instead, since the beginning of the history of women’s basketball in the United States, the sport has been marked by its constant and consistent negotiations with female propriety.

Spalding's 1903 "Official Basket Ball Guide for Women" (Image courtesy of Vintage Basketball).

Spalding’s 1903 “Official Basket Ball Guide for Women” (Image courtesy of Vintage Basketball).

When Dr. James Naismith created basketball for the men of the YMCA in 1891, expectations for women were marked by an adherence to middle-class propriety, which valued grace and beauty and informed the view of women’s physical and mental capabilities. Women were considered fragile and were believed to be susceptible to fainting episodes and mental exhaustion, a result of their supposed limited mental and physical capacity. It is this view of women that historians of women’s basketball consider the sport’s first physical educators and coaches to be guided by, catalyzing the creation of a set of modified rules for women. The movement for a separate women’s game was spearheaded by Senda Berenson, the Director of Physical Education at Smith College, and the modified rules were officially published by the Spalding Athletic Company in an annual series, “Basket Ball for Women,” starting in 1899.

Scholars argue the original rules in Spalding’s series stringently abided to ideals of “womanly decorum,”[1] promoting limited female physicality and modesty, and bearing “a Victorian stamp, stressing refinement and gentility.”[2] This, in turn, only further perpetuated the image of women as weak and athletically inept. However, this characterization is often an unfair one. When considering the intention behind publishing the Spalding series and concurrent trends in men’s basketball, the rules and supplementary essays provided in these guidebooks represent the struggle that players and proponents to women’s athletics have faced throughout sports history—having to negotiate with what was considered “proper” feminine behavior in order to play.

At the time of the first publication of women’s basketball rules by Spalding in 1899, there were no universal standards of play for the sport. Already hard to organize due to limited facilities and funds, games between women’s teams were further complicated by the highly varying ways in which teams interpreted Naismith’s rules. In her “Official Note” to the 1901 rulebook, Dr. Alice Bertha Foster offers that the impetus behind publishing the rules was to universalize play and make it easier to engage in intercollegiate competition. In fact, Foster found the modified rules mostly unnecessary, considering it “still safe and satisfactory to play the original game.”[3] While historians have considered the publication of the modified rules as a promotion of womanly ideals, it actually represented an effort to make the game and competition for women more widespread, offering a standardized game that could be played from court to court.

Western High School Girls’ Basketball team, Washington, DC, 1899. (Image Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division).

Western High School Girls’ Basketball team, Washington, DC, 1899. (Image Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division).

Berenson and her peers have been criticized for seemingly supporting a “ladylike” approach to the game by reprimanding attempts of “roughness,” as it is referred to throughout the series. While Berenson does state that playing by Naismith’s rules causes players to do “sadly unwomanly things,”[4] she quickly follows this by noting that the same issues are also addressed in the men’s rules. In his 1896 essay for Spalding’s guide for the men’s game, “Ethics of Basketball,” Dr. Luther Gulick argues that “the greatest danger” presented during play is not injury, but male players conducting themselves in a manner that is “ungentlemanly [and] discourteous.” He concludes by offering, “Sport which violates the principles of courtesy and good character is never good sport.”[5] Echoing this sentiment, William H. Bail argued that the success of men’s basketball was dependent on the “intense desire”[6] of Naismith and coaches to reject the objectionably brute verbal and physical retaliation that was incited by players over calls they believed were unfair or loses. This common theme of trying to eliminate roughness in both sports suggests, while participation in sports were guided by the era’s mores of propriety, this was not directed solely at women’s athletics; both male and female coaches were expected to champion the gender norms of the time, and impart the importance of adhering to expectations of “gentlemanly” and “ladylike” behavior on their players.

Moreover, when considering the context that Berenson and others use to define “roughness,” these limitations more closely reflect today’s standards of sportsmanlike conduct than an adherence to gender-based ideologies of behavior. In her essay “The Significance of Basket Ball for Women,” Berenson writes that players should aspire to “expert playing” rather than “rough playing.”[7] Throughout the essay, participants are referred to only as “players” and “athletes,” not “women” or “ladies.” It is critical to note that Berenson does not refer to rough play as “unladylike” or “improper” play; she calls for a “clean sport,” not a “delicate” one. Instead, she notes that rough play is a “brute and unfair”[8] approach to the game that is the result of a ‘winning at all costs’ mentality that puts players and their opponents at risk of injury―a playing style that is reprimanded with personal fouls to this day. She continues by arguing that the modified rules, specifically shortening the court and disallowing players to bat the ball out of their opponent’s hands encourages teamwork and avoids “star playing.”[9] This sentiment is one that was expressed in the men’s rules, as players and coaches were asked to “put character above victory.”[10]

Historian Betty Spears projects that, in her endeavors to have the rules for women’s basketball published, Berenson contemplated, “Could women play a game designed for men? Would such a game be too strenuous and too physically demanding for women? Would women be tainted if they played a man’s games?”[11]However, further analysis suggests that these were neither Berenson’s concerns nor the concerns of her peers. Instead, these women largely focused on navigating through the social ideals and expectations that defined womanhood and, in turn, affected popular opinion on women’s participation in sports. What has appeared to be an appreciation and adherence to the gender ideals of the time was actually a negotiation with these norms in order to ensure that basketball could be played by women and incorporated into athletic programs across the country.

Senda Berenson (Image courtesy of Women's Basketball Hall of Fame).

Senda Berenson (Image courtesy of Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame).

This is made clear by the short, but significant remarks made by contributors throughout their essays in the Spalding series where they state, in no uncertain terms, that the sport would have to bow to traditional gender norms in order to simply exist. In the 1908 book, Berenson writes, “Tradition, association, [and] the expected, have such a soporific hold…we go to the path of least resistance,” and concludes by reminding readers that “pioneers had to fight the traditions of hundreds of years.”[12] In the same guidebook, Dr. Alice Bertha Foster wrote, “I cordially respect the conservatism which acts as the balance wheel of our social life… [but] the strongest survive.”[13] As these excerpts suggest, Berenson and her peers were aware of the challenges that women’s basketball and women’s athleticism would pose to mainstream ideals of femininity and propriety. However, they were also aware that a space for the female athlete in American society could only be carved through pioneering efforts that grappled with the social, cultural, and political mores of the time.

The economic, political, and social challenges that women faced at the time of basketball’s emergence would need to be met with strength―an idea that can be found in the pages of the Spalding series. Proponents of women’s basketball considered the sport an important opportunity to showcase both the physical and intellectual ability of women, and to further validate the growing opportunities for women in the country. For these physical education directors, women’s basketball aligned with and was not separate from endeavors for social progress for women. Links are made throughout the series as to how the endeavors of women’s basketball connected with those such as the fight for more stringent child marriage laws and municipal suffrage rights, grievances over unequal pay, and political endeavors such as the work of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Berenson argues that new social and professional opportunities for women create the need for “physical strength to meet these ever increasing demands.” More significantly, she offers that basketball allows women to play with “deep earnestness and utter unconsciousness” undermining the “false education”[14] that has socialized women to be self-doubting.

In 1896, Senda Berenson astutely offered, “The value of athletic sports for men is not questioned. It is a different matter, however when we speak of athletics for women.”[15] Almost one hundred twenty years later, this observation remains timely, as the significance of athletics for women and the significance of their athletic contributions are still highly questioned, doubted, and often disregarded. The history of women’s basketball and, more broadly, women’s sports, is marked by and parallel to the struggle for equality. Considering the first quarter century of women’s basketball in the same vein shows the continuance of women’s sports being linked with strides for equality, and can help inform the study of women’s basketball in contemporary setting, further explicating the modern issues the sport faces.

Mercedes Townsend is Master’s candidate in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College. Her research primarily focuses on the interplay between gender and sports marketing and economics. Her thesis is an interdisciplinary investigation of the causes of pay inequity in professional sports, in particular basketball. She can be reached at


[1]Sally Jenkins, “The History of Women’s Basketball,” WNBA 101: History,

[2] Pamela Grundy and Susan Shackelford, Shattering the Glass: The Remarkable History of Women’s Basketball. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 17.

[3] Dr. Alice Bertha Foster, “Official Note,” Spalding’s Official Basket Ball Guide for Women: 1901-1902 (1901): 9.

[4] Senda Berenson, “The Significance of Basketball for Women.” Spalding’s Official Basket Ball Guide for Women: 1901-1901 (1901): 23.

[5] Ibid.

[6] William H. Bail, “The Spirit of the Game,.” Spalding’s Official Basket Ball Guide: 1915-1916 (1915): 9.

[7] Berenson, “The Significance of Basketball for Women,” 20.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. pp. 25

[10] Dr. Luther Gulick, “Ethics of Basketball.” Spalding’s Official Basket Ball Guide: 1896-1897 (1896): 9.

[11] Betty Spears. “Senda Berenson Abbott, New Woman: New Sport.” A Century of Women’s Basketball. From Frailty to Final Four, (Virginia: AAHPERD Publications, 1991) 24.

[12] Senda Berenson, “Are Women’s Basket Ball Rules Better for Women that Men’s Basket Ball Rules?” Spalding’s Official Basket Ball Guide for Women: 1908-1909 (1908): 31.

[13] Dr. Alice Bertha Foster, “Official Note.” Spalding’s Official Basket Ball Guide for Women: 1901-1902 (1901): 49.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Berenson, Senda. “Basket Ball for Women” Spalding’s Official Basket Ball Guide: 1896-1897 (1896):53.

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