"A march from madness, and the evolution of women’s basketball," by Chuck Wright

Mill Creek resident Chuck Wright is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Certified Traumatic Stress Specialist. Photo credit: Karen Brandon.
Mill Creek resident Chuck Wright is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Certified Traumatic Stress Specialist. Photo credit: Karen Brandon.

By Chuck Wright. a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Certified Traumatic Stress Specialist.

In 1891 Springfield College PE instructor, James Naismith, invented men’s peach-basketball.

Within a few months Senda Berenson brought the game to Smith College, but since women were not suited for men’s style of ball, Berenson modified Naismith’s rules.

Berenson believed her gentile basketball codes supported women to be players and ladies too.

Medical doctors, teachers and moralists were hollering, “It’s an anti-lady like game that will destroy a woman’s health and morality.

Even with all the anti-basketball shouting, women’s basketball evolved into today’s March Madness.

To protect the “fragile sex” Berenson’s codes divided the court into three sections. Each player had to stay in her own section and not move beyond it.

Girls in one section were called shooters.

Players on the defensive end could rebound a missed basket and pass the ball to a middle section teammate, who then advanced the ball to the shooting ladies.

After a person scored, the ball was returned to the center circle for a lady like jump ball.

Masculine behavior had no place in Berenson’s rules and her regulations worked around women’s health issues.

To protect girls, they only had up to three dribbles then they had to pass the ball.

Southerners aggressively fought against Berenson’s non-feminine game.

In the 1890s PE instructor Clara Baer, from Sophie Newcomb College (now part of Tulane University), introduced the game to her students.

Before the first class Baer handed each girl a baggy ankle-length pair of pants. These antebellum ladies rejected the women suffrage attire.

However, after a week sweating profusely in their corsets, the women grudgingly changed into the lighter and less restrictive bloomers.

To protect her players and keep Southern sensitivity in the game, Baer reduced the size of the court and prohibited her students to move around unless the ball was in the air.

She further forbad opponents to be guarded or to attempt shot blocking; and to shield the ladies nerves no player was allowed to yell or talk during a game. 

To keep the game gentlewoman like, it became a technical foul if a player held the basketball close to her body or hit the ball with her fist.

1884 players were allowed to bounce the ball one time, but the ball couldn’t bounce above the knees!

To punish a violator the rules committee came up with the free throw foul shot.

On March 13, 1895, with over 500 female New Orleans socialites looking on, the first Southern public ladies “March Madness” game was played.

After the game the athletes delayed greeting their attendees to give time to the players to find their hairpins and handkerchiefs, which were knocked off during the game.

Rules were fluid during the first sixty years of women’s basketball.

In 1903 a new out-of-bounds rule came into play. This mandate awarded the ball to the player who caused a ball to go out of bounds.

Before this innovation players scrambled after the ball and sometimes they would chase it down stairwells, which added to this frail sex pushing, shoving, and falling.

The new rule immediately stopped that masculine behavior.

Over ten years, rule changes reduced the court size, which helped women from overheating and becoming worn-out. 

In 1908 the rule committee allowed technical fouls on coaches who shouted encouragement or instructions to their players.

The 1913 rules let a coach talk with her team at half time and while on the sidelines.

Up until 1918 most basketball hoops were still peach baskets. After every basket a person had to climb up a ladder to retrieve the ball.

During the 1918s the bottom of the baskets were removed and in the same year substitutions were allowed, but the player being replaced was not allowed to return.

It’s been told that on April 17, 1896, Washington and Ellensburg State Normal School had a spirited game, which included two rules controversies.

Washington played with an asymmetrical ball. Thus not one of the 18 players had any idea, which way the ball would bounce. Whereas, the Ellensburg women used a ball that was rounder.

Even though there was no standard ball size the referees declared Washington, the home team, the ball “official.

It would take another 35 years before the 30-inch ball became the standard ball.

The other contested infraction came about when a Washington player swatted the ball out of an Ellensburg woman’s hands.

Ellensburg’s rules didn’t allow this. The referees again sided with the home team.

The final score, Washington 6, Ellensburg 3.

It’s March Madness time and darn right, basketball helped women march from those madness sexist yesteryears.


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