Born as Senda Valvrojenski, she immigrated to the United States when she was seven years old. Her parents were Albert and Judith Valvrojenski. When Senda was born, she had an older brother Bernard. She would later have another younger brother and two younger sisters. Albert Valvrojenski grew up following an educational track of classical Jewish learning and at one time contemplated becoming a rabbi. However, he gradually became a practitioner of Haskalah, a European movement which advocated more integration of Jews into secular society. However, after his home and lumber business were burned to the ground, he lived with his in-laws, who were more traditionalist. He enrolled his son Bernard with a Hebrew and Aramaic tutor, under this pressure. He decided to move to the United States, where he could raise his family according to his own beliefs. He moved alone to the United States in 1874, locating in the West End of Boston. He became a “poor peddler of pots and pans”, selling his wares in local towns near Boston. Albert changed his surname to Berenson soon after his arrival, as part of is “Westernization”. He worked hard for months, and then sent for his family in 1875.
Albert stopped attendance at synagogue, and Bernard did not have the traditional Bar Mitzvah coming of age ritual. He insisted that the family speak only English, and attempted to sever ties to the Jewish traditions. Despite this, his children did not fully abandon their faith. Bernard described himself as Jewish, and continued to practice some Jewish rituals. The family had moved to a section of Boston with almost fifty families from their original neighborhood, some of whom were relatives, so she grew up with the religious influences. Bernard attended Boston Latin School one of the most prestigious schools in the country. When he competed his studies there, he moved to Cambridge, in preparation for his enrollment at Harvard. He and Senda were very close, and she, now in her midteens, spent time in Cambridge, and soaked up the intellectual atmosphere. Bernard’s circle of friends included Isabella Stewart Gardner, Ralph Adams Cram and George Santayana, the latter two having met each other through Bernard. Following his graduation from Harvard, Bernard moved to Europe, eventually settling in Italy, where he began a career as an art critic. Senda’s goal was to emulate her brother.
Senda did not have much interest in athletics as a child, and preferred music, literature, and art. She was “frail and delicate” in her childhood, which interfered with her schooling. She was partially home-schooled by her father, attended Boston Latin Academy (then known as Girl’s Latin School), but did not graduate. She briefly attended the Boston Conservatory of Music, but health issues forced her to leave the school. She intended to return to the Conservatory, which delighted her brother, who wrote to her expressing his happiness at her plans to return, and wishing her could take her on a tour of The Louvre. She had tried painting and the piano, but her health limited both; she was unable to keep up the practice needed for the piano. Back problems interrupted her piano lessons. Senda had moved out of the house, and began a relationship with a man named David. However, Bernard was not yet self-sufficient, and Senda would send him money on a regular basis. She ended up moving back home, for what were “probably economic reasons”. The relationship with David was serious enough to prompt a proposal of marriage, but Senda declined and ended the relationship with David, amicably, near the end of 1888. Her health continued to deteriorate, forcing her to give up her piano lessons at the Boston Conservatory. She slowed her writing to her brother, who worried about her health, and urged her to take a summer in the country. That refreshed her temporarily and she re-enrolled at the Conservatory, but she was unable to keep it up, and fell into a long depression that extended into 1890.
Mary Hemenway was a philanthropist in Boston who had many interests, both within Boston and elsewhere. She was the sponsor of the Hemenway Southwestern Archaeological Expedition, the first major scientific archaeological expedition in the American southwest. She started many schools in the south after the civil war, and opened the first kitchen in a public school. In 1876, she donated $100,000 to save the Old South Meeting House, famous for the location of the organization of the Boston Tea Party.
In 1887, Hemenway started the Boston Normal School of Cooking. The following year, she provided instruction to one hundred Boston school teachers in a system of gymnastics education known as the Swedish system. At the time, the predominant form of physical education was a German style of gymnastics, with an emphasis on strength training and competitiveness. In 1889, she arranged a conference on physical training, which had national influence on the course of physical education in schools. In that same year, Hemenway created the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics. Later, the school would become Department of Hygiene and Physical Education at Wellesley College.
In 1867, at the age of nineteen, Amy Morris Homans went to the south to work in Reconstruction Era schools. There, she first met Mary Hemenway, who was funding many of these ventures. When Hemenway returned to Boston, Homans returned with her as her executive secretary. The 1889 conference on physical education funded by Hemenway was organized by Homans. The conference “is considered by most historians to be pivotal in the development of American physical education”. When the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics was founded, Homans became the first Director.
Berenson learned about the School of Gymnastics from a friend, and decided to enroll, briefly, to improve her physical condition so that she could return to the Conservatory. However, there were two challenges. The entrance requirements included high school graduation or equivalent, and Berenson hadn’t graduated from Boston Latin Academy. In addition, the entrants were expected to be in satisfactory physical condition, which was not the case. Berenson has met with Homans, and Homans took a liking to her. Homans felt that her physical condition could be improved, and the result might serve as a testament to the schools approach. Homans decided to take a chance, and admitted Berenson. The school offered a two-tier teacher training course, and a one year certificate course; Berenson enrolled in the one year program. The school drew faculty from several resources, including the Royal Central Institute of Gymnastics, founded by Pehr Henrik Ling in Sweden, as well as faculty from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Psychology was taught by Harvard’s Josiah Royce.
Berenson’s start was inauspicious. Years, later she would exclaim “how I hated that school for the first few months!”. She wasn’t interested in the gymnastics work, as the exercises made her “ache all over”. Early on, just standing erect for five minutes forced her to lie down, and she found she had to study lying on her back. She decided to give the exercises a “fair trial”, and she saw improvement in three months. By the end of the year she was doing the prescribed two hours a day of exercise, and felt much better. Her brother was disappointed to hear that she had not returned to the Conservatory, but did not fully comprehend how much she had improved at the gymnastics school. Berenson decided to enroll at the school for a second year.
Berenson’s condition improved so markedly that Homans sent her to the elementary school in Andover to teach the headmaster and faculty about the Swedish theory of gymnastics. Berenson made twice-weekly visits to the school. This first attempt at teaching proved so successful, that when Homans learned of an temporary opening due to the illness of a teacher at Smith College, she recommended that Berenson consider it, even though she had not completed her second year. The gymnastics instructor at the time had been Grace Watson, who started with Smith in 1891 to head up the Swedish Gymnastics program. Like Berenson, Watson had attended the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics. Miss Watson left Smith in January 1892, and died November 24, 1892. Berenson would later be described as a “missionary” referring to her strong support for the inclusion of physical education in the lives of the students. This characterization was intriguing for two reasons:
less than two years earlier, her physical condition would not even permit her to play the piano for long stretches
her position was expected to be temporary, making it all that more unusual that she would push her beliefs so forcefully.
Perhaps her own improvement, which she attributed to the Swedish gymnastics, led her to the belief that her experience could be transferred to others. Berenson was fortunate to arrive at a school with well-equipped facilities. The school had recently completed the Alumnae Gymnasium in 1890, which provided some of the best facilities in the country for college women. Although the physical facilities were in fine shape, the notion that women should engage in physical exercise, much less be required to do so, was not then well-established. Berenson spent considerable time presenting her position to the faculty and administration. Atone such meeting, only one faculty member was in agreement at the beginning of the meeting, but by the end of the meeting, she persuaded the faculty to support a mandatory second year of physical education. While Berenson saw the need to persuade the faculty, she naively thought the students were more supportive. She had heard that some of the students felt the exercises were too boring, but she had six classes each day filled with “enthusiastic girls”. Because of the evident enthusiasm, she decided it would not be necessary to take attendance. However, when she reached the end of the school year, and was provided a complete roster for the purpose of recording grades, she realized that many of her “students” had never come to class. She instituted roll call the following year.
Berenson realized that the gymnastic exercises were not quite so enthusiastically received as she had originally thought, so she cast about to find alternatives. She read about the new game of basketball, invented by James Naismith, in the YMCA publication Physical Education. Group games were “unheard of” at Smith, but she felt this would be an interesting experiment. She had tried other games, but they had not succeeded, in part because the women of that time had no experience with team play. The initial games played in class followed the Naismith rules. The response was so positive, that she felt “compelled” to schedule a game between the freshman and sophomore classes. That game, played March 22, 1893, was also played with Naismith rules. The players wore bloomers, and no men were admitted to the event. In an odd twist, when Berenson tossed the ball between the two opposing center for the first ever formal game of women’s basketball, she struck the out-stretched arm of the center from the freshman team, dislocating her shoulder. The start of this game was delayed, while they attended to the distressed player, and arranged for a substitute.
Berenson was pleased with the reception to the game, but felt some changes were needed. She thought the game had a “tendency to roughness”, so she sat down with her class to discuss how to modify the rules, to make it more suitable. 1892. She divided the court into three regions, and prohibited players from leaving their assigned region. Players could not dribble more than three times, could not hold the ball for more than three seconds, or snatch the ball away from an opponent. Berenson formalized her rules into a set of official rules, in 1899, and continued as editor of the rules for eighteen years. The rules would remain in use, with only minor modification, until the 1960s.
At the end of her first year, Berenson was invited to return to Smith in fall. The original position had been temporary, but was made permanent. With the expectation of a future income, plus a financial contribution from her brother, she decided to spend the summer in Europe to visit Bernard, whom she hadn’t seen for several years. Bernard initially discouraged her visit, because he was in a relationship with a married woman, Mary Costelloe. His concerns were apt, and the visit was strained whenever Mary was present, but Bernard took pleasure in showing Europe to Senda, and introducing her to his friends. When Berenson returned to school, she was given the title of Instructor in Gymnastics. She continued to develop her gymnastics program, but with the aid of a part-time assistant, had enough time to pursue other interests. She had visited a number of art galleries during her summer with Bernard, and she keep up her interest in art. She corresponded with Bernard regularly, who was happy to hear of her interest in art. He was not yet convinced that her career in gymnastics was wise, hoping that she would abandon it for a career in art. Berenson wrote often about art, partly to show Bernard she could keep up with him intellectually. She did not emphasize her work at Smith, although she did send him a picture of herself in her gymnastics outfit.
Berenson was active in developing the gymnastics program, attending the Royal Central Institute of Gymnastic in Stockholm, and organizing the Gymnastics and Field Association at Smith in 1893. After her return from Stockholm, she started a folk dance program at Smith, and in 1901, introduced field hockey with the help of Lady Constance Applebee of England. She introduced fencing to the school in 1895. She later also adapted volleyball for women.
In 1911, she married a professor of English at Smith, Herbert Vaughan Abbott. Soon afterward, Berenson resigned from her position at the College, although she continued her interest in sport by serving as the Director of physical education at the Mary A. Burham School located in Northampton, Massachusetts. She remained editor of the Basketball Guide for Women and as chair of the U.S. Women’s Basketball Committee for six years. Known as Mother of Women’s Basketball, Berenson, in 1985, became the first woman enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
- March, 19, 1868
- Vilnius, Lithuania
- February, 16, 1954
- Santa Barbara, California
- Woodlawn Cemetery Association
- New Windsor, New York