March 6, 1892
Friday afternoon at the Gym we played a game instead of going through the ordinary performances. Two waste-paper baskets were hung, one on either side of the Gym about three feet above our heads...the object was to get [the ball] into your opponent's basket and keep it out of your own.... It was great fun and very exciting [though] the side I was on had the misfortune to be beaten.
A year after writing to her mother about the new game she had learned in her gym class, 19-year-old Josephine Wilkin found herself a spectator instead of a player at a watershed moment in the history of women's sports. One hundred years ago, at eight o'clock in the evening of March 22, 1893, in a tiny gym on the campus of Smith College, in Northampton, Mass., Wilkin, along with 800 other students, cheered on the freshman and sophomore teams in the first college women's basketball game.
Five days later, on page 4 of the New York Herald, a brief announcement of that historic game appeared, squeezed between notices of a declamation contest at the University of Pennsylvania and an upcoming American Whig Society lecture at Princeton: "On Wednesday evening an exciting game of 'basket-ball' was played by the sophomore and freshman teams [of Smith College].... In spite of the fact that the sophomore captain was disabled at the beginning of the game, the score was 5-4 in favor of the sophomores after a close contest of two 15-minute halves."
Senda Berenson, a physical-education instructor at Smith who would later be known as the "petite pioneer" of women's basketball, had thought the new men's game she had read about in a magazine would be a great indoor exercise for her girls. She realized, though, that there were risks involved in introducing women to this new sport since, as she later wrote, it was a "well known fact that women abandon themselves more readily to an impulse than men."
After she put her freshman and sophomore teams through three weeks of practice in the late winter of '93, Berenson's worst fears about her "dubious experiment" were realized in the March 22 game. According to one bystander, "the girls went wild...running madly the entire length of the big floor, batting and snatching the ball. Pandemonium existed among the spectators who yelled and cheered at the top of their lungs."
The "hullabaloo," as the Daily Hampshire Gazette described the scene at Alumnae Gym that night, gave Berenson cause for renewed concern about the dangers of unbridled enthusiasm. Ten years later, in her book Basket Ball for Women, she wrote that "the great desire to win and the excitement of the game will make our women do sadly unwomanly things."
Berenson, who believed that the endurance required to play basketball would make women less prone to illness and therefore better candidates for equal wages in the workplace, quickly decided that men and women should not be equals on the basketball court. Immediately after that first game she modified the rules to accommodate a more courteous, "feminine" style of play. Under this modification, 1) the floor was divided into three equal parts, and each player was restricted to one of the areas; 2) a foul would be called when the ball was kicked or struck with the fists, or snatched or batted from an opponent's hands; and 3) putting one or both arms around an opponent, or holding, pushing or tripping an opponent were all deemed illegal moves.
The following year, at the close of the second Smith College freshman-sophomore basketball game, some viewers might have questioned whether the unwomanly desire to win had been tempered at all by the new rules. According to one newspaper account, "The sophomores [fans] flocked from their balcony and 'mid clapping and waving of flags seized their pretty captain and hoisted her to their shoulders...and sang their song of victory:
Sing a song of triumph, girls,
sing it with a will,
Lend your voices one and all,
until the rafters thrill,
Show your team you're proud of them,
reward their arduous drill
For we have won the ball game.