The World’s First Women’s College Basketball Team

It is not widely known that it was the University of California, Berkeley, which gave the world the very first women’s college basketball team. The Cal women became the first women’s team to play a basketball game as the representatives of their school the fall of 1892, less than a year after the game of basketball had been invented by James Naismith. Four years later, the Golden Bears played the first women’s intercollegiate basketball game in history — against arch-rival Stanford, of course. The Cal women were the powerhouse of women’s basketball in the west in the late 1890s. And the women accomplished all this more than a decade before the Cal men ever thought of playing intercollegiate basketball. Here is the story of the beginning of women’s college basketball, right on the Berkeley campus.

Before we are inundated by hordes of outraged Smith College fans, let me give due credit to Senda Berenson, the “Founding Mother” of women’s basketball. Shortly after James Naismith invented the game of basketball in the fall of 1891, Berenson, a physical education instructor at Smith College, read about the new game and decided it would be excellent exercise for the women in her classes. She introduced the sport to her students, and by the spring of 1892 they began playing intramural games between the freshmen and sophomores.

Senda Berenson, the Lithuanian Jewish immigrant who became the “Founding Mother” of women’s basketball

Basketball as a sport for women caught on around the country immediately. By the fall of 1892, a group of women at the University of California in Berkeley formed a team to represent the University in games against outside opponents. They were inspired by “physical culture” professor Walter E. Magee, who introduced the game to the Berkeley campus, and became, unofficially, the first Cal basketball coach.

On November 18, 1892, the Cal women’s team played a game on the Berkeley campus against a Berkeley prep school called Miss Head’s School. This was just eight months after James Naismith’s men’s teams played the first public basketball game ever. The game between California and Miss Head’s School was the first women’s basketball game played in the western United States. Even more significantly, it was the first game ever played by a college women’s team against an outside opponent, making the Golden Bears the first women’s team ever to represent their college in a basketball game.

The game was played on the Berkeley campus at the original Harmon Gymnasium (located at the site of present-day Dwinelle Hall):

Old Harmon Gymnasium was built in 1879 and was the fourth building on the University of California campus. It was torn down in 1933.

According to an article by Albert May of The San Francisco Call, Miss Head’s School prevailed by a score of 5-4 on a last-minute basket. Although only women were permitted to attend the game, May managed to arrive early and conceal himself in Harmon Gym. May’s article demonstrates the condescension and sexism with which women athletes were faced from the very beginning. Under the headline, “Berkeley Beauties Have a Glorious Game,” May provided very little information about the actual game, instead spending most of the article describing the physical appearance and the clothing of the players. He described the Cal team as, “nine of the handsomest, best-shaped, loveliest co-eds in the whole world,” who were “costumed in blue bathing suits with gold ribbons,” although May later conceded that they were actually wearing “gymnasium outfits.” And he described the team from Miss Head’s School as “nine cute little misses.” He did concede, however, that the players on both teams played hard and were thrilled to be able to play a competitive sport:

All the fair athletes were nearly exhausted, and it was absolutely impossible to find a single girl among them which did not have numerous bruises or had not sustained some slight injury. But, oh, how happy were they all. “Now we have a game that beats their old football to pieces,” they said, as they painfully filed out of that gymnasium, wrapped in cloaks to hide their torn costumes and shapely figures from masculine eyes.

After the 1892 game with Miss Head’s School, the Cal women spent the next few years playing only intramural games among themselves. In the meantime, the founding of Stanford University in 1891 had finally given Cal students the close collegiate rival they had been lacking for so long. The Stanford women established a basketball team in 1895 began playing prep schools and clubs. In February 1896, the Stanford women felt they were ready to beat the Bears, and issued a challenge for a game to the women in Berkeley. A group of Cal women decided to assemble a team and accepted the challenge. The game against Stanford would be their first game.

The first women’s intercollegiate basketball game ever was set to be played at the Page Street Armory in San Francisco on Saturday, April 4, 1896. In fact, not only was the 1896 Cal-Stanford game the first intercollegiate women’s basketball game, it was also the first women’s intercollegiate competition in any sport in American history.

The game created quite a stir in the San Francisco Bay Area. As yet, no men’s college basketball was being played in the west. In fact, the Cal men would not play their first intercollegiate basketball game until 1907 — eleven years in the future. So the women were not only pioneers in women’s sports, but also pioneers in introducing the brand new sport of basketball to the west coast and into the Cal-Stanford rivalry.

Men continued to be banned from attending the game because it was considered unseemly for them to witness scantily-clad (by the standards of the time) young women running around, rough-housing, and perspiring. In light of the salacious tone of Albert May’s article about the 1892 game, it is not surprising that the young women did not wish to be subjected to that type of attitude from male attendees. At Stanford’s insistence, even the Cal coach, Walter Magee, was excluded from the game. Despite the ban on men, there was such enormous interest in the contest by the women of Cal and Stanford that it was a sell-out, with an attendance in excess of 700. The admission charge was 50 cents, with a portion of the California team’s profits going into a fund to support an upcoming tour of the east coast by the Cal men’s track team. Thus, women’s sports at Cal began by providing financial support to men’s teams.

The game was played nine-on-nine, in two 20-minute halves. The court was divided into three zones, with three players from each team assigned to, and required to stay within, each zone. There was no dribbling, but players could run no more than five feet before they had to pass the ball to a teammate, while their opponents tried to intercept the pass. The rules for women’s basketball laid down by Senda Berenson at Smith College had been written to ensure that the game remained “ladylike,” with efforts to bat or snatch the ball away from opponents and other “rough play” banned. But the young women out west were made of sterner stuff, and the team captains, Elizabeth Griswold for California and Stella McCray for Stanford, agreed to rules which allowed their teams to play a more aggressive game than the easterners.

The starting nine players for the University of California in this historic game were Elizabeth Griswold (captain), Mary McCleave, Blanche Terrill, Helen Grace, Clara Williams, Mabel Palmer, Katherine Jones, Edith Brownsill (also student manager), and Edna Robinson. Sarah Hanscom and Bertha Knight were the substitutes.

The San Francisco Examiner’s illustration of Cal’s starting nine.

All the local newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Call, the San Francisco Examiner, and the Oakland Tribune, sent women reporters to cover the game, and gave it extensive coverage. The Chronicle reporter, Mabel Craft, also wrote for Leslie’s Weekly Magazine, which gave the game national coverage. Craft had a special interest in the game. She had graduated first in her class from the University of California in 1892, but had been denied the University Medal which was awarded to the top graduating senior, because the new University President declared that the Medal would henceforth be reserved for men. The second-place graduate, Joseph Garber, refused to accept an honor which he did not believe he had earned, and the Medal went unclaimed that year. Craft would have a distinguished journalistic career, be the first woman editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, and become a campaigner for civil rights for African-Americans and for women. She saw women’s basketball as a means of demonstrating the physical and mental abilities of women.

The game itself proved to be low-scoring, to say the least. The fact that the backboard had not yet been invented made the distance to the basket difficult to judge, and meant that shots had to be extremely accurate to make it into the basket. Players were also prohibited from using two hands to shoot the ball, further hampering their accuracy. And the three forward players for each team were definitely not extremely accurate. Nevertheless, the crowd was very enthusiastic, and both the Cal players and the Stanford players, attired in blue and red, respectively, fought hard. According to the Chronicle‘s Mabel Craft, the crowd jammed the gallery at the Armory and “roared until the glass doors in the gun cases shivered at the noise.”

Illustration of the April 4, 1896 Cal-Stanford game from Leslie’s Weekly Magazine. The California players have “UC” on the front of their uniforms. The woman in the jacket is the umpire, Miss Ada Edwards of Stanford. The referee was Mrs. W. E. Mcgee, the wife of the Cal coach.

Craft described the game as “snappy,” with, “many calls for time and some disputes.” Craft continued, “Enthusiastic captains claimed fouls, and some were allowed. Sometimes with a slump and a slide, three girls would dive for the ball, and end in an inextricable heap of red, white, and blue. In less time than it takes to read it, they were all planted firmly on their two feet, flushed, perspiring, intensely in earnest, and oblivious of everything except that ball.”

Craft was enthusiastic about the athletic ability shown by the players, and thought that the game demonstrated that women were not the frail creatures, prone to hysteria, so often portrayed by the medical profession and society as a whole. “Basket-ball wasn’t invented for girls,” she wrote, “and there isn’t anything effeminate about it. It was made for men to play indoors and it is a game that would send the physician who thinks the feminine organization ‘so delicate,’ into the hysterics he tries so hard to perpetuate.”

Baskets counted as one point. Stanford drew first blood when Miss Mattie Clark scored 10 minutes into the game. Five minutes later, Miss Katherine Jones of Cal tied the game with a basket of her own. The game remained a 1-1 tie at the half, when the players rested on the floor of the Armory, snacking on orange slices. The second half was scoreless until, at the very end of the game, Miss Frances Tucker of Stanford made a free throw for the win. Final score: Stanford 2, California 1. Despite the loss by her alma mater, Mabel Craft wrote that the game had been a great success for women’s athletics. According to the Chronicle, the game was, “the first great struggle in feminine athletics.”

Mabel Craft’s story about the game, from the April 5, 1896 San Francisco Chronicle

The Stanford team was greeted at the Palo Alto train station by a large and enthusiastic crowd. Each of the women on the Stanford team was awarded a varsity letter – something that would not happen again until after the passage of Title IX in the 1970s made it mandatory for colleges to provide women with the opportunity to play varsity sports. Jane Stanford, the University’s co-founder and sole Trustee, sent the team a note of appreciation for their efforts.

The 1896 Stanford women’s basketball team. The players were: Stella McCray (captain), Agnes Morley, Jessie Ryan, Lena Ducker, Anita Corbert, Frances Tucker, Mattie Clark, Esther Keifer, and Mayme Merritt.

The game received coverage by newspapers as far away as New York. Two weeks after the game, the New York Sun ran a lengthy article which began by noting its significance:

The new girl made her debut in the arena of intercollegiate sport in California last week, and opened up no end of entrancing possibilities for the future gaiety of nations, while putting up as pretty and smart an exhibition of athletics as has been seen on the Pacific slope. The women students of the University of California met the women students of Stanford University in a game of basketball in San Francisco for the championship of the coast. There have been games of basketball between girl teams before, but this was new in bringing together representative teams from two universities.

The New York Sun mentioned a notorious “hair-pulling incident” which had recently occurred during a basketball game between two New England prep schools, and praised the California and Stanford teams for their far more serious approach to the game. “The California girls evidently felt that the eyes of the feminine athletic world were on them, or would be scanning their performance later, and they went in just to play ball of a kind that would be beyond criticism and beyond comparison.”

The California players were disappointed by the loss to Stanford, but also determined to re-double their efforts to achieve athletic excellence. Soon an entire league of women’s basketball teams was established, with California and Stanford being joined by teams from Mills College in Oakland, the University of Nevada in Reno, and several teams sponsored by various YWCAs. California quickly became the dominant team, going undefeated in 1898, including lop-sided wins of 10-1 against the Mission YWCA, and 13-1 against Mills College. The Bears played Nevada in Berkeley on April 9, 1898. The Nevada players were treated to lunch at one of the dorms in Berkeley, and spent the night at the homes of the Cal players. California continued its basketball dominance, defeating Nevada 14-1. The Cal women were praised by The San Francisco Chronicle for having displayed as much guile and trickery as the Stanford football team! The Chronicle‘s Mabel Craft told readers that this game was so physical that it, “would have crushed into fine powder those Dresden china shepherdesses who had the honor to be [these players’] grandmothers.” Craft added, “Fourteen to one was the tune to which the Berkeley co-eds literally and figuratively wiped up the floor of the Odd Fellows’ Hall yesterday with their guests from Nevada. It is not a polite way to treat visitors, but almost anything goes in basket-ball.”

Despite their big loss, the Nevada team enjoyed the trip to Berkeley so much that they agreed to return the following year. Nevada had hired a new coach, Ada Edwards, who was a former Stanford coach and had been the umpire at the first Cal-Stanford game in 1896. She taught her team to play much more aggressively. And, in a demonstration that the west coast game was not the “ladylike” affair still favored back east, the 1899 game was played so ruggedly that one Nevada player had her nose broken as she was elbowed during a scramble for the ball. California won the game, but the 7-3 final score was much closer than the prior year, and the all-female crowd was very excited and enthusiastic throughout.

The sport reached another milestone when the 1900 Blue & Gold yearbook covered basketball (which was still only played by women) for the first time, and on equal terms with men’s sports. The yearbook editors apologized for having neglected the sport in previous years. They provided the full rosters and scores of the undefeated 1897-98 and 1898-99 seasons and included this team photo:

TThe 1898-99 Golden Bears: Alma Stockwell (captain), Emma Stoer, Allie Kelshaw, Alice Farno, Gertrude Longmore, Ethel Catton, Louise Linscott, May Haworth, Ella Stockwell, Lucile Turner, and Lulu Rued.

The Blue & Gold summed up the achievements of the Cal women thus:

Although the indoor pig-skin chasers do not strive for the glaring publicity which so delights their brethren of the football field, the University of California team occupies a proud position in basketball circles — an eminence so lofty that they can uniformly dictate the conditions on which others may contest with them, and just as uniformly emerge victorious from the struggles in which they engage.

In light of the great success of the Cal women, a vote was held among Cal’s existing varsity lettermen in 1898 to decide whether the women should be awarded varsity letters. The letter holders — all men, of course — voted to deny the women varsity status. The acerbic Mabel Craft, possibly still smarting from having being denied the University Medal because of her gender, thought that the Cal men — who had yet to win a Big Game against the Stanford football team — were envious of the greater success of the women. Craft wrote, “The athletic girls from the Berkeley hills proved that if the young men can seldom win at anything, the girls at least are capable of upholding the college honor.”

According to the Oakland Tribune, the denial of the varsity letters was officially justified on the ground that “basketball is not an established inter-collegiate game.” But the San Francisco Call reported that the real reason was that a number of professors opposed women’s participation in sports. “It is a well-known fact that certain of the professors are opposed to this line of athletics for the young women, on the grounds of the violent effort required in it and of the tendency it might have to destroy their femininity.”

The Stanford women were having an even more difficult time of it. Despite the enthusiasm of the students and Mrs. Stanford over the 1896 win against California, the Stanford faculty and, most particularly, University President David Starr Jordan, found women’s participation in serious athletic endeavors to be unseemly. In 1899 the Stanford faculty athletic committee abolished women’s intercollegiate sports at Stanford, “for the purpose of guarding the health of the individual player.” Stanford announced that all teams sports were henceforth banned because, “the physical strain upon the young women is too great.” The most vehement rejoinder to this action by the Stanford faculty and administration came from students at the University of Nevada who passed a resolution stating: “Let the girls play basket-ball if they want to. Encourage and assist them in every possible manner, and if the misguided professors of Stanford University should say, ‘Nay, nay . . . ‘ we shall call them a lot of bald-headed, long-whiskered, cross-eyed old billy goats.”

The Stanford players were deprived of all support from the University and of their status as their school’s representative team. However, they did form the independent “Palo Alto Club,” which kept competing in a league with California, Mills College, Nevada, and San Jose Normal College (now San Jose State).

The opposition to women’s sports by college faculty and administrators increased as time passed, both at Cal and at other schools. Although such sports were not formally banned at Cal, the women began to lose support from the University. And as other schools refused to support women’s basketball, there were fewer teams against whom the Bears could compete. When the Cal men finally began to play basketball in 1907, it was the final death-blow to the women’s game as a major sport, with the women left to organize games on their own as a club sport. It was not until the 1970s, after the passage of the federal law commonly known as Title IX, which compelled colleges and universities to provide varsity-level athletic opportunities to women students, that the Cal women’s basketball team finally achieved the varsity status it had been denied in 1898. But despite these great set-backs and struggles, women’s basketball and women athletes in general owe a great debt to those intrepid Golden Bears who helped create the sport of women’s college basketball more than 125 years ago.



California Golden Bears,

Emery, Lynne, The First Intercollegiate Contest for Women: Basketball, April 4, 1896,

Gubi, Greg (ed.), The First Decade of Women’s Basketball, A Time Capsule of Media Reports from the Dawn of the Game, The Lost Century of Sports Collection (2011)

Grundy, Pamela and Shackelford, Susan, Shattering the Glass: The Remarkable History of Women’s Basketball, The New Press, New York (2005)

Lannin, Joanne, A History of Basketball for Girls and Women, From Bloomers to Big Leagues, Lerner Publishing Group, Minneapolis (2000)

Macy, Sue, “Gibson Girls Become Basketball Women,” The New York Times (March 24, 1996) archives for 1890s editions of The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Examiner, The San Francisco Call, and The Oakland Tribune

2 thoughts on “The World’s First Women’s College Basketball Team

  1. You made my day ! Just unearthed an original clipping from the SF chronicle of the 1899 Cal women’s basket ball team’s players which included my husband’s grandmother Alvie’s Kelshaw! I am an athlete pre title 9 myself having competed in the second FISA regatta to allow masters women a chance to compete internationally (1989).

    Liked by 1 person

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