Senda Berenson was born Senda Valvrojenski, March 19, 1868, in Vilna, Lithuania. Berenson trained at the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics and was hired at Smith in January 1892, one month after the game of basketball had been invented by James Naismith at the International YMCA Training School in nearby Springfield, Mass. At Smith, Berenson instituted an effective program of Swedish gymnastics, which was supplemented by organized athletic contests in sports such as volleyball, fencing, field hockey and basketball, all intended to build character in her female students. She believed in strict and careful supervision of all activities and in offering “the most for the most,” i.e., including young women of all skill levels in the program rather than devoting her time to a small group of highly skilled students. This philosophy resulted in a policy at Smith College to favor a strong intramural program over interscholastic athletic competition. Berenson extended her missionary-like work in popularizing Swedish gymnastics beyond Smith: first with students and faculty at Northampton High School, and later with female patients at the Northampton Lunatic Hospital.
Shortly after her appointment at Smith, Berenson read about the new sport of basketball and visited with Naismith to learn more about it. On March 21, 1893, she organized the first women’s collegiate basketball game when her Smith freshmen and sophomores played against one another. Influenced by the thinking of her time about women’s physical limitations, she soon adapted the rules to avoid the roughness of the men’s game. Berenson’s rules were first published in 1899. Two years later, she became editor of A. G. Spalding’s first Women’s Basketball Guide, which further spread her version of basketball for women. In 1985 Berenson and Margaret Wade were the first two women elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
In 1911, after marrying Herbert Vaughan Abbott, a professor of English at Smith, Berenson resigned from her position at the College. She remained as editor of the Women’s Basketball Guide and as chair of the U.S. Women’s Basketball Committee for six years. Her husband died in 1929. In 1934 she moved to Santa Barbara, Calif. to live with her sister. Berenson died in February 16, 1954.
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