The Conflicted History of Women's Basketball in Milwaukee

Women's basketball is a central part of March Madness in Milwaukee, but a century ago, women basketballers just made people mad

Mar. 14, 2017
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Smith College’s Class of 1902 women’s basketball team, dressed in uniforms similar to those of the early women’s basketball squads in Milwaukee.

Last week, Marquette University’s women’s basketball team knocked off DePaul University to claim their first-ever Big East title and clinch their first birth in the NCAA tournament since 2011. On Monday, with the women’s brackets announced, it was revealed that Marquette had earned a #5 seed, meaning they are the highest-seeded Wisconsin school in either the men’s or women’s tournament.

Women have been playing organized basketball in Milwaukee nearly as long as men. One of the earliest reports on the sport’s popularity in the city came from the Milwaukee Journal in 1896, just five years after the sport was invented by James Naismith in Massachusetts. The Journal reported that the game was in the midst of a “rapid growth” since debuting in the city in the early 1890s. The paper mentioned a half-dozen local squads – each of them all-male – but noted that girls and women were also avid players. Still, the paper put female participation in the scope of the widely-accepted prejudices of the time. “[Basketball is] an excellent exercise for women and girls,” the paper wrote, “as they have so few games which they can participate in which are not a strain upon the nervous system.”

Within a year, however, there were several organized women’s teams playing in the city. East Side High School (now know as Riverside University High School) was the first high school in the city to have a girl’s team. The Milwaukee-Downer College (now UWM) was the first university to do so, putting together a team so talented that they quickly ran through all available local opponents and had difficulty finding squads willing to face them. The days when girls and women were limited to croquet as a competitive sport, the Journal wrote in 1897, “are already in the dim and misty past.”

One of the pioneers of the women’s game in Milwaukee also became one of its most vocal opponents. Teacher Stella Burnham organized and coached some of the city’s first girls’ basketball teams, holding games in the lecture hall of a Baptist church. But as the girls became more competitive, Burnham disavowed the sport on the grounds that such rough behavior from young women was beyond the bounds of good taste. Indeed, the more girls and women played basketball to win, the more people objected to their participation.

A group of girls play basketball at in Sauk County, Wisconsin about 1900. Photo Courtesy of: Wisconsin Historical Society

A basketball game between the East High girls and a high school team from Waukesha, played in March 1901 at the old Michigan Street Gymnasium caused a panic among “prominent women” in Milwaukee. “I base my objections to the game on the grounds of the over-exertion entailed,” Burnham told the Milwaukee Sentinel after the contest. “The mental effect such exertion has on girls who are at school and the demoralizing results that come when the game is carried too far. We don’t want all the bloom rubbed off the peach, you know.” Burnham was one of a chorus of women who objected to the way in which the girls played the game – sweating, scrapping for the ball, and acting dejected when their shots missed the basket.

“I am a thorough believer in athletics for young women,” said Ellen Sabin, President of the Milwaukee-Downer College. “But when they are carried past the point of mere joy in exercise I think they are open to criticisms. I never saw a game of the character of the one described – and I don't believe I should want to.” The Sentinel did not even bother to print the final score of the game, but did relay scandalous rumors of previous matches at the gymnasium, during which girls were carried from the floor in exhaustion and left to lay prostrate in the dressing room for “hours at a time.” The paper also reported that “in many of the practice games girls have been known to dislocate their arms and after having members of the team set the bones back into place go on playing unconcernedly.”

The paper said that only the girls on the court seemed unconcerned with their style of play. Whether or not they were really passing out in the middle of games and yanking their arms out of socket, the enthusiasm of these young women for the sport clearly shows through. And try as alarmed parents and newspaper reporters might, they could not keep Milwaukee girls from taking up the game and going all-out to win. Which is something that any fan of basketball – or any believer in equality – can be thankful for today.


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