Berenson, Senda (1868–1954)

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Berenson, Senda (1868–1954)

Jewish-American basketball innovator and physical educator who modified and wrote the rules for women's basketball which remained in use until the 1960s. Born Senda Valvrojenski in Biturmansk (or Butrimonys), Lithuania, on March 19, 1868; died on February 16, 1954; daughter of Julie and Albert Valvrojenski; sister of Bernard Berenson (noted art collector); married Hebert Vaughn Abbott (an English professor at Smith College), on June 15, 1911.

Russell, Alys Smith (1866–1951)

American wife of Bertrand Russell. Name variations: (nickname) Lurella or Loo. Born Alys Pearsall Smith in 1866 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died in 1951; daughter and one of three children of Hannah (Whitall) and Robert Smith (a preacher); sister ofMary Berenson ; graduated from Bryn Mawr; married Bertrand Russell (pacifist, philosopher and author), in December 1894 (divorced 1921).

Alys Smith, the beautiful younger sister of Mary Smith Berenson, captured the romantic attentions of Bertrand Russell when he was but 17 and a frequent visitor to the Smith home. However, the Russells disapproved of her (perhaps due to the age difference; she was five years his senior), and when the couple became engaged four years later they sent Bertrand off to Paris for three months in hopes of cooling his ardor. In Paris, he met Alys' sister Mary, who admired his intelligence and found him excellent company. The two became fast friends.

Alys and Bertrand wed in 1894, but the marriage was troubled almost from the start. Although Alys adored "Bertie," unlike Mary she could not abide the intellectual conversations he thrived on and found his smoking deplorable. One of Mary's letters, dated August 26, 1898, provides a glimpse into the couple's failing relationship: "Bertie says that he has resigned himself to being always bored after he is about 30. 'At home, even?' Alys asked. 'Especially at home' Bertie answered remorselessly."

By 1902, Bertrand admitted to having fallen out of love, and the marriage ended, though the two stayed together for the next nine years with increasing misery on both sides. Alys, who would continue to love Bertrand her entire life, suffered a nervous breakdown and bouts of depression (as did other members of the Smith family). She also became so reportedly critical and self-righteous that even her sister found her unbearable. In 1911, Bertrand had an affair with another woman and did not return to Alys afterward, but the couple did not divorce until 1921, when Bertrand forced the issue in order to marry Dora Black (Russell) , who was pregnant. At this time, Alys was serving a year-long appointment as a housemother at Bryn Mawr, her alma mater. Alys saw Bertrand only once after 1911, a few months before her death in 1951.

Senda Berenson, sister of noted art collector Bernard Berenson, was born Senda Valvrojenski in Lithuania in 1868 (her father changed the family name to Berenson when they arrived in America in 1875). Though frail as a child, in 1890 the 22-year-old Senda enrolled in the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics, a women's teachers' college, where she studied with Amy Morris Homans and Mary Hemenway . It was an age that saw the standardization of sports, with the development of rules and extensive organization. Often excluded from golf courses, tennis courts, and other athletic arenas, women met the challenge by developing their own clubs and associations.

When Berenson left school in 1892, she began teaching physical education at Smith College, where she was to lead that department of the all-female university for 19 years. In an effort to offset the long, tedious hours of repetitive gymnastic work, she organized the first basketball match between her first-year and second-year classes on March 23, 1893. Though men were not allowed to view what were regarded as the potentially embarrassing exertions demanded by the game, lines formed outside the gym one hour before start time. Wearing their team's colors, the supporters of each class sat on opposite sides of the gym. Because cheering was not then included in the "present scheme of womanliness," the audience took to singing songs with brio. Soon after the game, Berenson and her students modified basketball inventor James Naismith's original rules, which had been proposed in nearby Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1891. "To eliminate roughness and to minimize the danger of overexertion," wrote Allen Guttmann in Women's Sports, Berenson's new rules included a court divided into three zones which kept players from crossing the dividing lines. Players were not allowed to steal the ball from other players. They could not hold the ball for more than three seconds or dribble more than three times. In 1899, Senda Berenson established the first official rules for girls' basketball, a sport which would become increasingly popular. The work of Berenson and her colleagues—Lucille Eaton Hill at Wellesley, Clara Baer at Newcomb College, Martha Carey Thomas and Constance Applebee at Bryn Mawr—refuted the contentions of England's Henry Maudsley and America's Edward Clarke who warned that physical exercise during puberty would expend a girl's fixed supply of energy. Berenson maintained that as "all fields of labor and all professions are opening their doors," a woman "needs more than ever the physical strength to meet" such demands.

For 12 years, Berenson chaired the American Association for the Advancement of Physical Education (AAAPE) Committee on Basketball for Girls. Her book, Line Basket Ball for Women, was the first published work on women's basketball and included her philosophy about the sport as well as her assertions regarding its positive psychological and physiological effects. In 1911, Berenson married a professor at Smith, Hebert Vaughn Abbott. Shortly thereafter, she became director of physical education at the Mary A. Burnham School in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she would remain until her retirement in 1921. In this position, Berenson introduced fencing and folk dancing and brought remedial gymnastics to students with special needs. Following her retirement, Berenson traveled and in 1929 moved to California, where she lived until her death in 1954. Senda Berenson was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame and the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame in 1984.


Guttmann, Allen. Women's Sports: A History. NY: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Woolum, Janet. Outstanding Women Athletes: Who They Are and How They Influenced Sports in America. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1992.

Karin L. Haag , Athens, Georgia

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Berenson, Senda (1868–1954)

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