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Women's basketball is a team ball sport developed in the United States of America in the late 1800s, in tandem with its men's counterpart.[1] Women's basketball became popular, spreading from the east to west coast of the United States in large part via women's college competitions.[2] As of 2020, women's basketball is played globally, with basketball being one of the most popular and fastest growing sports in the world.[3]

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There are multiple professional leagues and tournaments for professional women basketball players. The main North American league is the WNBA.[3] The FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup and Women's Olympic Basketball Tournament feature top national teams from continental championships.[4] In the US, the NCAA Women's Division I Basketball Championship is also popular.[5] The strongest European women's basketball clubs participate in the EuroLeague Women.[3]


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Women's basketball began in the fall of 1892 at Smith College. Senda Berenson, recently hired as a young "physical culture" director at Smith, taught basketball to her students, hoping the activity would improve their physical health.[6] While for men, basketball was designed as an indoor addition to existing team sports such as baseball and football, basketball became the first women's team sport, followed shortly after by hockey, rowing, and volleyball. Basketball's early adherents were affiliated with YMCAs and colleges throughout the United States, and the game quickly spread throughout the country.[7]


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However, Berenson was taking risks simply in teaching the game to women. Nineteenth-century Victorian culture stressed the frailty of women and prioritized the status of women in the home, and Berenson expressed concern about the women suffering from "nervous fatigue" if games were too strenuous for them.[8] In order to keep it acceptable for women to play at all within Victorian ideals of refinement and gentility, she taught modified rules.

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She increased participation to nine players per team, and the court was divided into three areas. Three players were assigned to each area (guard, center, and forward) and could not cross the line into another area. The ball was moved from section to section by passing or dribbling, and players were limited to three dribbles and could only hold the ball for three seconds. No snatching or batting the ball away from another player was allowed.

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A center jump was required after each score. Variations of Berenson's rules spread across the country via YMCAs and women's colleges, where educated middle-class women were following the prevailing trend in men's games of playing intercollegiate sports.[2]



Freshman Women's Basketball Team - 1914

Early basketball was played with peach baskets and soccer balls, similarly to the men's game, but women's uniforms again reflected the Victorian culture of the times and were designed to be practical, yet maintain the woman athlete's dignity and femininity.[9] While upper-class women had been playing sports at country clubs since the mid-nineteenth century, they were able to participate in activities such as tennis and croquet in full-length skirts and corsets.[10]

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However, similar attire was impractical for a more active sport like basketball, so the first trousers for women were worn. Initially loose and covered by a knee-length skirt, these early pants were replaced soon after by loose bloomers over stockings. Despite men being forbidden from watching these collegiate games, the attire still drew public ridicule.[10]


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Arctic Sisterhood women's basketball team in Nome Alaska circa 1908

Originally exclusively intramural, the first intercollegiate women's basketball game was played between teams from Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, on April 4, 1896.[2] Berenson herself opposed intercollegiate play for women, and prioritized the health and fitness benefits for a larger goal: she believed that women, newly entering the workforce and seeking paid jobs outside the home, were at a health-related disadvantage to men, which she saw as limiting women's opportunities and the possibility for equal wages.

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For much of the early 20th century, other coaches and administrators felt similarly, due in part to an increasing sentiment that men's college sports were becoming too commercialized and exploitive of the athletes.[11] The women's branch of the National Amateur Athletic Foundation was founded in the 1920s, and the organization's goals included keeping women's sports non-competitive by discouraging travel and awards, discouraging publicity, and keeping women coaches and administrators in charge of women's sports.[11]


From 1895 until 1970, the term "women's basketball" was also used to refer to netball, which evolved in parallel with modern women's basketball.


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