Senda Berenson: The Unlikely Founder of Women's Basketball

By Orr, Brooke | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Senda Berenson: The Unlikely Founder of Women's Basketball


Orr, Brooke, Historical Journal of Massachusetts


Ralph Melnick. Senda Berenson: The Unlikely Founder of Women's Basketball. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007. 265 pages. $22.95 (paperback).

Ralph Melnick has written a richly detailed and vivid narrative tracing the life and works of Senda Berenson, best remembered as the founder of women's basketball in the United States. In Senda Berenson: The Unlikely Founder ofWomen 's Basketball, Melnick presents a portrait of Senda Berenson as an individual and as a pioneer in women's sports, deliberately providing neither a history of early twentieth century "new woman" feminism nor a history of women's basketball and physical education.

In 1890, Berenson enrolled at the Boston Normal School for Gymnastics (BNSG), which trained teachers in Swedish gymnastics techniques. The Swedish approach, as explained by Melnick, emphasized personal growth, social uplift, interpersonal skills, and physical health. In contrast, the German approach that had come to dominate American athletics during the Civil War promoted strength, nation building, and competitive athletic skills. During her training in the Swedish athletic philosophy at BNSG, Berenson accepted Smith College's invitation to fill a temporary gymnastics instructor post, only to stay at Smith for over a decade as the highly influential and persuasive Director of Physical Training. During her tenure at Smith and in spite of early faculty resistance, she created women's basketball, institutionalized a wide range of women's sports, introduced physical education courses, and was a successful fundraiser, all key hallmarks of modern college athletic directors.

Melnick argues that Berenson was a surprising choice for the frankly Christian Smith College, given Berenson's background as a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe. In fact, Melnick demonstrates that athletics was a touchpoint of anti-Semitism in America at a time when Jews were regularly barred from Gentile sports associations and clubs as well as higher education institutions. In carefully tracing her life by pointing out her ongoing connection to Europe through family, travel, and politics, Melnick explores Berenson's personal dismay over anti-Semitism abroad and in America as expressed by figures like Hitler and Father Charles Coughlin.

The most fascinating and compelling sections of Melnick's well-written narrative relate to Berenson's gendered sports philosophy. According to Melnick, Berenson believed that the so-called women's sphere was greatly expanding during the late nineteenth century and thus deemed it essential for women to become physically fit to adjust to and command their new roles. Of any sport, Berenson regarded basketball as the greatest value to women because, she argued, it developed physical and moral courage, self-control, self-reliance and teamwork. Melnick reveals that Berenson viewed female sports competition as morally and socially indefensible, instead seeking to encourage women's "self-control and gentle manners," characteristics essential she claimed to women's good "character and true womanhood"(187). …

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