At the recent International Sports and Leisure History Colloquium organised by SpLeisH, (3-4 March, 2017), I delivered a Pecha Kucha paper that signposted a number of potential avenues for future research on the growth and development of female basketball. The paper examined the cross-cultural shift that occurred in the development of two seemingly disparate, but culturally significant sports in both the USA and the UK – ‘From Basket-Ball to Net-Ball’.


The research for my paper highlighted a number of subject-specific ‘layers of truth’ that should come with an academic health-warning when delivered as a Pecha Kucha. The subject matter has been sub-divided into 7 segments and will be published at suitable intervals in order to expand upon the narrative contained within my presentation. The ‘known facts’ on female basketball have identified two major themes – the assumed historical impact made by females in basketball and netball, and the availability of ‘safe’ formally archived material in order to empower the narrative.

The invention of Basket-Ball in 1891 was the solution to a problem of poor behaviour by a group of 18 male YMCA trainee secretaries. The 13-rules of the ‘new game’ allowed for a degree of latitude in interpretation which popularised basket-ball with males and females; both as players and spectators.


By 1895 female teacher training colleges could choose between two versions of the game. The boy’s game remained faithful to James Naismith’s YMCA version growing in popularity with male participants. The first pioneer of the girl’s game was Clara Baer who misinterpreted Naismith’s court guide diagram. The result was a demarcation of female player’s roles that was never intended – a regulation that exists to this day in the game of netball and the 6-player game of Basketball played in Iowa.


The ‘Mother of Women’s Basketball’, Senda Bereson, elected to alter Naismith’s rules in keeping with contemporary attitudes towards female participation in sports. Bereson’s version of the game suited “her girl’s” at Smith College, Massachusetts, in that it promoted their efforts to gain a degree of emancipation through sport – many teacher training colleges nationally followed their example. Just as the YMCA movement was effective in disseminating the male game nationally and internationally –it was female teacher training students who disseminated the girl’s game. A game that was intended to promote the physical culture of exercise and team games, played for personal and social development.

The segregation of ethnic groups within the US State education system deeply impacted upon the take-up of the game amongst females (and males). Female basketball was to provide considerable social, cultural, economic, political and aesthetic dimensions for many ethnic groups. For example:

Native Americans:


In 1904 a team from the Fort Shaw Indian School, Montana, became ‘Champions of the World’ by playing a series of games at the 1904 World Fair and Olympic Games in St. Louis. The success of the Native American team bizarrely provided confirmation that the white man’s policy of assimilation was not only desirable but possible.


African Americans:


The first recorded basketball game between two all-black women’s basketball teams – the New York Girls and the Jersey Girls – took place on 26 February 1910. Teams were forced to play in ‘black only’ dance halls due to the Jim Crow Laws enforcing racial segregation (from 1877 to the mid-1960s).

Iowa’s 6 v 6 Girls’ Basketball:


Small-town Iowa displayed America’s social and cultural attitudes through their 6 v 6 game of ‘Basquette’ which flourished from 1893 to 1993. Whilst Iowa’s major towns and cities played basketball, agricultural districts played Basquette. Ironically, Title IX – of the 1972 Education Act – contributed to the games’ demise. The 6-player game infringed gender equality laws with its gender-specific playing rules.

English Ladies Net-Ball:


The introduction of female Basketball into England requires detailed study. Current research indicates that Madam Bergman-Osterberg introduced a version of the girl’s game to female PE students at her Hampstead teacher training college in 1893. By 1901 Bergman’s students had established Net-Ball as a ‘girl’s game’ through the Ling Association (founded in 1899) – firmly embedding the game in Britain’s early-20th Century middle-class leisure culture.

American Net-Ball:


If the ‘American game of Net Ball’, introduced in British variety theatres in May 1900, had become popular – the game as we know it, may never have survived. This series of commercially motivated challenge matches between a GB and US team serves to further confuse any working definition of the game of basket-ball or net-ball.

Influenced by the emancipation of Western middle-class women, James Naismith’s game with no name became two games – Basketball and Netball, each having their own unique identities. My preliminary conclusion is that the growth and development of both games should be defined through their cultural spheres of influence as reflected in their rules of play.

Article © Keith Myerscough