The WNBA season has opened again, and it’s a different ballgame from the six-on-six game foisted on us when I was a kid.
I was in seventh grade in 1970, ready to play basketball, when our teacher unveiled rules that weren’t at all like the game I knew.
- Only two girls on each team had full run of the floor.
- The rest were restricted to defending at one end or waiting to score at the other.
- No dribbling more than three steps before passing the ball.
It was as if society’s restrictions had been etched into a game: Girls, you can’t compete in a man’s world. These limits are for your own good. And some of you are going to be on the defensive all your life; you’re never going to score, so don’t even try.
Restrictions were built in the women’s game in 1892 by Senda Berenson, a PE instructor at Smith College.
“Organized games,” she said, “teach obedience to law, develop self-control, unselfishness, naturalness, quickness of mind and body — altruism and group loyalty.”
But women should be limited to “mild competition” with their classmates.
“The great desire to win, the hard grind of practice … bring about nervous excitement, worry, sleeplessness and all the evils of athletics,” she said.
So there you have from the mother of women’s basketball the contradictions that have tugged at us forever: Sport is good for you, but not too much of it. We want you to compete, but not too much. Or else it will be the ruin of you.
Berenson’s first game between the freshmen and sophomores at Smith was played behind locked doors in 1893. It was the same in 1895 with the first intercollegiate game, in which Stanford beat Cal 2-1.
But outsiders eventually saw women play ball. For her Web article on the history of women’s basketball, Sally Jenkins dug up a Los Angeles Times story from those early years headlined “Sweet Things Have Scrap.” The reporter witnessed hair-pulling, tumbling and sliding. “There was something disquieting in the grim and murderous determinations with which the young ladies chased each other all over the court,” the reporter wrote.
Rules were rewritten in 1899 out of concern that the game was getting too rough, and some universities dropped competition altogether.
Still, women played basketball — some by women’s rules, some by men’s. Factory teams for female employees were popular, especially in the 1920s.
The Depression put an end to a lot of those squads, but barnstorming teams emerged. One of the best-known women’s teams was the All American Red Heads, out of Cassville, in the southwest corner of Missouri.
John Molina tells the story on his Web site dedicated to the Red Heads. C.M. Olson had a men’s team called the “Terrible Swedes.” His wife, Doyle, owned several beauty shops, and some of her staff played basketball, too. Before one game, several colored their hair red for fun. Big hit. They became the Cassville Red Heads. Then team member Peggy Lawson suggested they be called the All American Red Heads.
The team took off in 1936 and traveled from town to town, playing men’s teams with men’s rules. They beat them 70 percent of the time and put on a show like the Harlem Globetrotters. They lasted through 1986.
I had to endure only one season of six-on-six basketball. The rules were changed in 1971 to five players who could go full court. Much better.
I was short. I was slow. I couldn’t jump. And I’d get so excited during a game, I’d forget our two plays. But I did love to play ball.
In Ohio, we still had restrictions to “protect” us. For example, we weren’t permitted to play games on consecutive days, perhaps for fear that our ovaries would rattle out. Fat chance. The boys still had first dibs on the gym. No way would we get it two days in a row.
But in 1972, President Nixon signed Title IX into law, and the schools had to begin dividing gym time between boys and girls. They had to let us play.
Now it’s May, and the WNBA is playing again. Five-on-five basketball. Women running the full length of the floor. It is a thing of beauty.
And some of us will never take it for granted.
Mary Lawrence teaches editing at the Missouri School of Journalism.