Introduction – The First Decade of Women’s Basketball

This volume is a time-capsule of press reports from the dawn of women’s basketball in the late 19th century.

Women began to play basketball within a few weeks after YMCA instructor James Naismith unveiled the new game on March 11, 1892. Naismith encouraged both sexes to participate and married one of the first woman players. The sport quickly spread to YWCAs, athletic clubs, high schools, and colleges across the country.

Basketball released women’s competitive passions more than any other sport. For players in the heat of a contest, scrambling on the floor and tussling over a loose ball were natural athletic reactions. But to many observers it was a shocking display unlike anything they had ever seen before—a disturbing eruption of unbridled physicality that society had tamped down for centuries.

The clash between ladylike decorum and athletic abandon troubled many educators, social commentators and sports authorities. Young women were expected to remain proper and demure in all public settings. While golf, tennis, bowling, ice skating, and other individual sports inspired acceptably feminine behavior, the action-packed team game of basketball, often played before an all-female audience, permitted a Victorian girls’ night out, and by many accounts the girls went wild.

Scandalous reports of name-calling, hair-pulling, cheating, arguing with referees, and fighting on the court were sensationalized in the press. Gymnasium balconies surged with loyal supporters clad in team colors, yelling organized cheers and exchanging volleys of taunts with rival fans.

Critics of women’s sports were not the only ones who were alarmed. The same women who pioneered the game sought to rein it in soon after it was unleashed.

Although the articles are often condescending and sexist by modern standards, they are indicative of their era and provide the social context for the cultural restrictions imposed upon athletic women of that period. Despite the obstacles, many American women played anyway. The backlash against their competitive exuberance resulted in decades of athletic repression and the long struggle for an equal right to play that culminated in the passage of Title IX in 1972.

In many regions men were not permitted to attend women’s basketball games, therefore many of the newspaper articles were written by women.

The source material is categorized into five chronological sections.

Section 1 describes “The Early Game” from 1892 to 1896. Most of the articles relate to Eastern colleges (Smith, Wellesley, Vassar, Bryn Mawr) but the earliest basketball article in this volume describes the University of California’s first game, played a mere eight months after Naismith’s first public game.

Writing in the San Francisco Morning Call (“Girl Ball-Kickers”), Albert May extolled the exploits of a superstar player named Jenny, “a perfect wonder. She was here, there and everywhere, stepping and jumping over and on top of everybody, having no eyes or feeling for anything but that leather ball and that basket. Like a perfect little fury, Jenny, with disheveled hair and disordered wardrobe, fought, scratched and kicked until that ball was safely inside of that basket.” However, May’s leering tone also epitomized why women sought to keep men out of the audience: “Such an aggregation of female loveliness and such a liberal display of the human form divine I had never hoped to be allowed to witness…the girls found it necessary to cover up some places in their costumes, where during the rough and tumble little pink flesh spots had made their appearance, peeping through rents and tears in the blue tights.” In this context many women refused to play in front of a mixed audience.

Section 2 focuses on “The First Intercollegiate Game” between Stanford and the University of California on April 4, 1896. More than 50 contemporary newspaper articles portray weeks of hoopla leading up to the big game, the pressure on the players, the excitement of the contest, and the controversial aftermath. The game was held two months after the first men’s intercollegiate basketball game and two days before the all-male modern Olympic Games were reborn in Athens, Greece.

Mabel Craft wrote about the landmark game for Leslie’s Weekly (“College Girls Play Basket-Ball”). Craft was an ardent suffragist, a proponent of racial equality, and the first woman editor of a major U.S. newspaper, The San Francisco Chronicle.

San Francisco Examiner illustrators include 25 year-old Laura E. Foster, who later became a successful illustrator for Life, Judge, and Saturday Evening Post, and 21 year-old Gertrude Partington (Albright), an instructor at the first school of commercial newspaper art in the country, Partington’s School of Magazine and Newspaper Illustration, founded by her father. Her brother Richard was a prominent portrait painter, her sister Blanche was a drama critic for the San Francisco Call, and her sister Phyllis was an opera singer known as Frances Peralta.

One newspaper article optimistically concluded, “Basket-ball has come to stay, and the innovation finds friends among those who believe that a woman should be more than a delicate and fragile plant, disciplined so rigidly by society’s law that to move other than languorously were a sin.”

The first decade of women’s basketball was wilder in the west but the boom was brief. One of the players in the first Stanford-Cal game was Anita Corbert, who wrote the article “Intercollegiate Basket-ball for Women” three years later, in 1899. That same year both universities quietly ended their participation in women’s intercollegiate team sports, not resuming them until the 1970s after the passage of Title IX—from three years before the Wright Brothers’ first flight until three years after men walked on the moon. The Stanford women won their first NCAA basketball championship on April 4, 1990, exactly 94 years after the historic inaugural game.

Section 3 reveals a flurry of press coverage of women’s basketball games in Fort Wayne, Indiana, from October 1896 to April 1897. This city of 50,000 people near the Ohio border supported a thriving league of women’s teams and a tournament attended by hundreds of men and women spectators. Indiana became a hotbed of the sport and sparked the “Hoosier Hysteria” that has existed ever since. The articles were published in Fort Wayne newspapers.

Section 4 features basketball articles from across the country from 1896 to 1903. Three photographs in this section were taken by Frances B. Johnston, one of America’s first female photojournalists. Young Frances received her first camera from a family friend, George Eastman, the founder of Kodak. Her photographs are from the Library of Congress collection.

This section includes the basketball chapter from the first comprehensive book of women’s sports in America, “Athletics & Out-door Sports for Women,” published in 1903, edited by Lucille Eaton Hill, the Director of Physical Training at Wellesley College from 1883 to 1909. Hill’s role in the development of women’s athletics is touted in the article dated April 19, 1896 (“Athletic Girls”), notwithstanding her later criticism of the sport in 1903 (“Basket Ball Denounced”).

The basketball chapter of Hill’s book was written by Ellen Bernard Thompson, a 27-year-old fledgling book illustrator who attended Howard Pyle’s art classes at Drexel Institute and married the teacher’s brother in 1904. Widowed in 1918, with four children to support, she resumed her painting career under the name Ellen B. T. Pyle, and created more than 40 covers for the Saturday Evening Post and artwork for many books. The illustrations in her chapter are examples of her early work.

Among the trailblazers of women’s basketball mentioned in this section are Kate Anderson of Chicago University, Helen Freeman in Des Moines, Iowa, Clara Baer of Newcomb College in New Orleans, Lucile Hewett in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Margaret Livingston Stanton Lawrence, the daughter of the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in New York.

Section 5 features articles and photographs from the influential booklet published by Spalding’s Athletic Guide, “Basket Ball for Women,” in 1903 and 1905. The publications were edited by Senda Berenson of Smith College, widely considered the founder of women’s basketball. She called basketball “by far the most popular game that women play.”

Her pioneering role was recognized in an 1894 article (“No Man In It”) when she was only 25 years old. She strongly proposed restricting the women’s game. Her modified rules partitioned the court into three separate zones which players could not cross, and also prohibited defenders from batting the ball out of an opponent’s hands. While Berenson’s students played by these rules from the beginning, many other schools played by the full-court YMCA rules for men.

Berenson warned that “unless a game as exciting as basket ball is carefully guided by such rules as will eliminate roughness, the great desire to win and the excitement of the game will make our women do sadly unwomanly things…rough and vicious play seems worse in women than in men.” Her recommendations prevailed and the wide-open, full-court game was effectively suppressed for the next 75 years. Even in its restricted form, the sport remained popular among young women. Some states, most notably Iowa, Oklahoma, and Texas, staged annual 6-on-6 high school tournaments that packed arenas. However, other states, including New York, Ohio, Illinois, and Kentucky, eliminated all interscholastic basketball tournaments.

Berenson did not balance her publication with dissenting viewpoints. She included supportive articles by Augusta Lane Patrick, a high school physical education instructor who graduated from Mt. Holyoke in 1892; Theodore Hough, PhD, a Professor of Physiology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who later became dean of the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine; and Luther Halsey Gulick, the Superintendent of Physical Instruction in New York City Public Schools and one of the founding founders of youth sports. In 1891, Gulick was the 25 year-old YMCA director who assigned James Naismith, a 30 year-old instructor, the task of inventing an indoor gymnasium game, and conveyed the rules of the new sport to YMCAs around the world.

The technical side of the game was detailed in articles by three Smith College players from the class of 1901: Fanny Garrison was a physical education instructor at Smith for many years; Agnes Childs also became a physical education teacher; and Ellen Emerson, who was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s granddaughter, became a member of the Smith College War Service Board during World War I.

Julie Ellsbee Sullivan wrote “A Plea for Basket Ball” for Berenson’s 1905 issue. Her father, James E. Sullivan, was the most powerful man in amateur sports in the early 20th century and is the namesake of the prestigious annual award given to the most outstanding amateur athlete in the U.S. He was a founder of the Amateur Athletic Union, the President of the U.S. Olympic Committee and a promoter of sports for boys, but he staunchly opposed women competing in sports and prohibited American women from participating in the 1912 Olympic Games.

Harriet Quimby (“Danger to Women in Athletics,” 1906) was one of America’s best known newspaper reporters. In 1911, at age 36, she became the first American woman to earn a pilot’s license and the following year became the first woman to fly across the English Channel. Weeks later in Boston, while performing at an air show attended by thousands of spectators, Harriet and her passenger were pitched out of her plane and fell hundreds of feet to their deaths. They were not wearing safety belts.

The articles in this volume do not directly address issues of race. Racial barriers were reinforced and institutionalized during this period. The first women’s intercollegiate game was played nine days before the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld racial segregation in the “separate but equal” decision. Traditional “Negro college” students participated in basketball, track & field, and other organized sports. However, African-American women’s athletics were not covered in any of the mainstream media sources in this volume.

Sports of the 19th century often seem distant and quaint, antique pastimes from a forgotten age, but it was during this Lost Century that our modern American sports were born and women began to play.

Click here to view the Table of Contents and Index.

Sample images from the book are displayed in (1) Women’s Basketball History Art Gallery and (2) Women’s Basketball Photo Gallery, and several of the photos in (3) Women’s Basketball Team Photo Gallery.

The First Decade of Women’s Basketball is available on Amazon and Kindle.