Did you know that the mother of women’s basketball was Jewish? Senda Berenson revolutionized women’s athletics.

Ironically, Berenson,* who was born on March 19, 1868, in Vilna, was a sickly child. When she was 7 years old, she emigrated to Boston, Massachusetts. Berenson’s delicate constitution made school difficult for her. She left school before receiving her high school diploma.

Choosing to follow the art-focused career path of her older brother, Bernard, who had become a renowned art historian, Berenson enrolled at the Boston Conservatory of Music. Here again, her physical ailments proved to be an impediment. She was unable to dedicate herself to either music or art, because the long periods of practice caused her discomfort and exhaustion.

In 1890, even though she had not finished high school and was in poor physical health, Berenson was granted a place at the new Boston Normal School of Gymnastics, which taught a Swedish form of athletics. By the end of her first year, Berenson’s health was significantly improved. Before completing her second year, she was hired as a replacement gymnastics teacher at Smith College. 

Early in her tenure at Smith, Berenson learned of the new basketball game developed by Dr. James Naismith. She decided to teach it to her classes at Smith. The young ladies enjoyed it so much that Berenson arranged the first all-women’s basketball game. As popular as basketball was, Berenson realized that the men’s version of the game was a bit rough, so she modified the rules (e.g. no stealing the ball, a limit of three dribbles, etc.). Her rules for women’s basketball, which she honed over a number of years, remained in use until the 1960s.

Berenson remained active in Women’s basketball and general athletics even after she left Smith College in 1911. In 1985, Berenson was the first woman inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. She was also inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1987, and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999.

Berenson passed away on February 16, 1954.

*The family’s original name, Valvrojenski, was changed by her father, Alfred, when he came to America.

March is Women’s History Month. 

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