Living Columns & Blogs

Women’s basketball thwarted the rules to become today’s sport

Unlike most other sports, basketball did not develop over time; it was created by an individual for a specific purpose. James Naismith was working at the YMCA Training School in Springfield, Mass.,in 1891 when he was instructed to invent a new game to keep the young men occupied in the cold winter months. So he tacked a peach basket onto the balcony railing and set out 13 simple rules — most are still in effect today — and “Basket Ball” began.

At nearby Smith College, physical education instructor Senda Berensen saw this new game and asked Naismith if she could teach it to her young women. The game was modified to meet the “delicate sensibilities” of the 19th-century woman and to discourage roughness. The court was split into three sections, with two women playing in each section, so the women did not have to run too much. Because they were encouraged to be polite and demure, women were not allowed to snatch the ball from an opponent or knock it out of her hands. To encourage team play and discourage one player taking over the game, a player could not hold the ball for more than three seconds or dribble the ball more than three bounces. The first intercollegiate women’s basketball game was played in 1896 between University of California-Berkeley and Stanford. Stanford won 2-1. Men were not permitted to attend the game.

Women’s basketball spread rapidly. As it spread, each team modified the rules to meet its own needs. The number of players varied depending on the size of the court. The different rules were so diverse that before playing, the teams had to meet to agree on the rules they would use. Dribbling changed over the years from no dribbling to limited dribbles until 1966, when unlimited dribbling was finally accepted. There was no coaching, no time outs and no substitutions in the early years. Guarding an opponent was not made legal until 1932. In 1938, the two-court, six-player game was mandated with three players at each end who could not cross the center line. It was not until 1970 the full-court, five player game was made official.

In spite of all the restrictions in the women’s basketball rules, there were many women who played by men’s rules, both in community games and industrial leagues. The All American Redheads played professional basketball from 1936 to 1986, barnstorming all across the country, as well as Canada, Mexico and the Philippines. They played men’s teams by men’s rules and won 70 to 90 percent of their games each year. At halftime, they would entertain the audience with trick shots and behind-the-back passes to show off their athletic ability.

So from playing in long skirts with many restrictions to today’s hard playing, aggressive scholastic and professional teams, we have truly come a long way.

OLLI at Penn State — open to adults who love to learn — is offering more than 120 courses this fall semester. Judy Reed and Coquese Washington will lead a course on the History of Women’s Basketball. To receive a free fall semester catalog, call OLLI at Penn State at 867-4278 or visit

Judy Reed is a retired teacher, avid bicyclist and active OLLI volunteer.