• Senda Berenson taught basketball to Smith College students in the winter of 1892.

• Smith College held its
first women's college basketball championship game on March 22, 1893.

• In 2010 there were 174,534 female NCAA student-athletes on 9,372 teams.

• 80% of executives (women) at Fortune 500 companies identify themselves as former athletes.


2011 Telly Award Winner - History/Biography

Learn how one educator's decision to incorporate basketball into her curricula revolutionized the world of women's sport and redefined women's societal role at the turn of the 20th century. Experience the exhilaration of students as they participated in the first women's collegiate basketball championship over a century ago.

Interview with Producer Kate Lee

Talk about this production.

In the late 1800s women were emerging from the Victorian age, choosing careers and entering the work force. Women's colleges were at the forefront of this movement and began implementing physical education programs into their curricula to help improve the strength of their students and prepare them for the rigors of employment. Weeks after James Naismith invented basketball in Springfield, MA, Senda Berenson taught the game to her students at Smith College because she believed that this simple game, tossing a ball into a basket, could help develop her students' physical strength and strength of character. Everything we talk about today, the value of team athletics for women, the lifelong lessons learned through participation in team sport – confidence, strength, resolve, learning to work through challenges, building team – it all began in 1892 in the Alumnae Gymnasium at Smith College.

What drew you to this story?

What intrigued me most about this story was how Berenson successfully incorporated team athletics into her training program. She faced significant challenges – the medical profession had publicly criticized physical activity (specifically team athletics) for women; and there was concern from faculty, parents, and religious leaders in the community about whether basketball was a safe and appropriate activity for young women. In that first decade of women's college basketball, the game grew because of the students. They loved the game! We're talking about young women emerging from the Victorian era, during which time their clothing and activities were very restrictive. When these students played basketball, they experienced the joy of movement, an intense physicality, competition. There is a handwritten letter from a Smith student who described her first experience playing basketball in March, 1892. She wrote, "It was great fun and very exciting, especially when we got knocked down as frequently happened." The physical, rough and tumble, competitive activity was exhilarating for them.

What resources did you use to tell this story?

The Smith College Archives has amazing resources - photographs dating back to the 1890s, old newspaper articles and scrapbooks, and letters that the students wrote home about basketball. The letters are incredibly descriptive - the students wrote about the anxiety they felt waiting for the team rosters to be posted, they wrote about the pride of wearing a uniform, the prestige of being a member of a team, about standing in line for 4.5 hours so they could get one of the seats in the balcony for the championship game. Reading these letters is like entering a literary time machine, whoosh…it instantly transports you back a century ago.

While conducting research for this project, I discovered lyrics that Smith students had written to popular songs in the 1890s. During the first championship game in 1893, the students brought the house down with their screaming, whistling and cheering. In an effort to maintain proper decorum, President Seelye mandated that this type of behavior not be allowed during future championships. To cheer their classmates on, students wrote lyrics to Civil War songs and tunes from Broadway musicals and sang these during games, in lieu of screaming.

What can we learn from this story?

The message from this story is that people passionate about a cause can evoke change. In that first decade, women's college basketball grew from the students' love for the game. Those student athletes in the 1890s changed society's perception of team sport for women. Newspapers went from condemning women's athletics to publishing headlines proclaiming 'American Girls, The World's Best Athletes.' That is a dramatic and significant change in a short period of time.

Questions or Comments? Email katekathryn.lee@gmail.com.