Amazingly, women’s basketball was introduced in the Victorian era, just a year after men’s basketball began in 1891.
Incredible, considering that at the time, women exercising – outside a slow stroll on the arm of a gentleman, or a particularly vigorous session of needlepoint – was considered dangerous and unfeminine.
Sadly, though, that doesn’t mean that pioneering lady ballers didn’t have to fight every step of the way. In the beginning, that meant fighting for the mere right to do physical activity, without the burden of a floor-length dress, a corset, roughly six-thousand hairpins, and the overwhelming consensus that women were sickly and fragile by nature. Ironically, tripping on a petticoat was seen as less of a safety hazard than getting the vapors, or the tantalizing reveal of an ankle.
Thankfully, the invention of sports bloomers (AKA Operation Ankle Freedom) in 1896 gave our ladies a foothold in their battle to ball. But they still had to deal with tight restrictions on women’s basketball games: no two-handed dunks (not feminine), no leaving your part of the three-section court lest you get too much exercise (not feminine), no fun nicknames (not feminine), no sliding across the court, animal-style, to get the damn ball (definitely not feminine).
In later decades, their fight evolved, and became more about equal recognition and survival as a sport. Female athletes might be able to play in a tournament, but that might also involve competing in a beauty contest (a la the AAU tournament in 1929). The All-American Red Heads, barnstormers from the ‘30s, could compete against men’s teams, using their rules, and win 70% of the time. But to do so they still had to work their feminine edge into overtime. With hair dyed to a matching, glitzy shade of red, they would spend half-time performing acrobatic comedy acts for the audience while the male teams took a snooze.
Thankfully, things have moved forward by leaps and bounds (and as many petticoat-free races across the court as we like), women’s basketball has been at full speed from the ‘70s onwards, stacking up wins. Olympics
inclusion, not as an exhibition. Being deemed robust enough to play full-court games. Title IX funding. TV ratings. The creation of the WNBA in ’96. Women coaching men’s teams. Women getting awards for coaching men’s teams. Hall of Fame inductions. Sports bras. Compression shorts. Total ankle freedom. Ladies: we’ve arrived. Now go and get that glory.