The History of Women’s Basketball 


Starting with the invention of basketball by James Naismith in 1891, the history of women’s basketball is an epic Cinderella story of gender equality in college and pro sports. From breaking free of the oppressive Victorian society to being statistically better at free throws than men, women’s basketball is an inspiring underdog legend that continues to play out both on and off the court.  


Coached by Senda Berenson Abbott, women started playing basketball for the first time at Smith College. But traditional corsets of the day made it difficult for them to play the game. Dr. Edward Morton Schaeffer urged society to ditch the corset, calling it a “figure and health-wrecking contrivance.” 

Smith College Women’s Team, 1902: Wikimedia Commons


Four years after basketball was invented, the game quickly gained popularity across the country, particularly at women’s colleges like Wellesley, Vassar, and Bryn Mawr. 

Women’s College Team, 1917: Wikimedia Commons


Bloomers were invented, emancipating Victorian-era women from the restrictive corset, and allowing them to move about freely on the court.  

Women’s College Team, 1908: Wikimedia Commons


In the first intercollegiate women’s basketball game, Stanford beat Berkeley in a 2-1 victory. 


Women from the Jazz Age championed equality in basketball when they started self-governing their competitions.   


In the struggle between gender equality and femininity, a team of women player’s called the Red Heads toured the country to play the top-ranked teams. Named for their red dyed hair, the women were required to not only look beautiful with makeup and salon hairstyles but also still expected to play competitively against the best men’s teams. 

Red Heads Team, 1930s: Wikipedia


Women’s basketball scored big in gender equality when the less-strenuous three-section court designated for women was changed to the same two-section layout as men’s basketball.  


College basketball head coach Tony Hinkle worked with the Spalding company to create the first-ever orange and black basketball, which was praised for its enhanced visibility. 

Photo by Abhay Mathew on Unsplash


Finally considered as athletically robust as men, women were allowed to play a full-court game. 


Title IX was enacted into law, which prohibits colleges and universities from discriminating against students and employees regarding gender. As a result, the NCAA began to enforce equal access and quality of women’s athletic programs in colleges across the country.  


The International Olympic Committee added women’s professional basketball as an official sport of the Olympic Games, 40 years after men’s pro hoops.  


Lusia Harris, also known as the “Queen of Basketball,” was the first black woman to be drafted into the NBA.


The Women’s Basketball League was formed, making it America’s first professional basketball league for women. 

WBL logo, 1979: Wikipedia


The WBL started its inaugural season with 8 teams and played for 3 years before ending in 1981 due to a lack of funding and marketing reach. The same year, the first televised game for women’s hoops aired on NBC Sports. In the Women’s Final Four, Old Dominion University clinched the win against Louisiana Tech.  


The NCAA began to financially support women’s college basketball. 

Louisiana Tech Women’s Team, 1982: Wikipedia


The first woman to make the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame was Senda Berenson Abbott, the founder of women’s basketball. 

Senda Berenson Abbott, 1888: Wikimedia Commons


Lusia Harris was the first black woman to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Lusia Harris, Delta State University, 1979: Wikimedia Commons


The women’s team beat Brazil 111-87 to win the Olympic Gold medal for the U.S. In the same year, the WNBA was established by the NBA. The regular season runs from May to September, including the All-Star game in mid-July and finals kicking off at the end of September. 

U.S. Women’s Basketball Olympic Team, 1996: USA Basketball


The inaugural season of WNBA was initially made up of 8 teams and eventually grew to 12.  

WNBA Finals logo, 1997: Wikipedia


A study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences found that women are 3% better at consistently making foul shots compared to men. 

Photo by Yaroslav Shuraev: Pexels

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