Bloomers and Beyond: The Evolution of Women’s Basketball in Perry

This year, KHC features weekly posts related to the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition Hometown Teams, currently touring Kansas.

The 1924 Perry Rural High School basketball team won the school's first girls' basketball championship, but it wouldn't be their last.  Image Courtesy Perry Pride.

The 1924 Perry Rural High School basketball team won the school’s first girls’ basketball championship, but it wouldn’t be their last. Image Courtesy Perry Pride.

We often talk about sports like they’re unchanging, but the truth is that they’re constantly evolving. New sports grow. Old sports fade. Even the ones that endure aren’t carved in stone: rules and conventions change with time, so Game A of yesteryear may not look much like Game A of today.

That’s the idea behind Perry’s Hometown Teams host site exhibition, which focuses on the way local team sports have changed through the years—a focus that Perry Pride Hometown Teams Project Directors Kathy Youngquist and Megan Cottrell said they hope will boost the community’s pride in their shared sports history.

Take, for example, the women’s basketball team that played at what was once Perry Rural High School. Back then, women’s basketball was a very different sport than it is today.

Forget about a full-court press. When the PRHS women’s team took the court in the 1920s, the players operated under a completely different set of rules than their male counterparts.

Rather than playing the full court, like male players did, players for PRHS and other women’s teams in Kansas had to deal with a three-zone court. Two players were stationed in each section; they could move freely inside their own zone but couldn’t go outside of it. The ball could be dribbled three times and passed once, but that was it.

Why the different rules?

As a 1951 article in the Perry Mirror said scornfully, “[In the 1920s and earlier] there were those, and some still feel the same way, who thought the girls were built too delicately to play basketball….Those same people, though, were not opposed to girls working in the fields in a pinch or hav[ing] them slave in a hot kitchen all day or labor[ing] over a wash tub and board. It was just an old ‘fogy’ idea…”

At any rate, the concerns were taken seriously enough that, in some cases, women’s basketball didn’t adopt the full-court game until 1971. Considering that Senda Berenson came up with the rules for women’s basketball in 1892, just one year after James Naismith invented the game, that means that multiple generations of Kansas women grew up playing a version of the game that was deliberately less challenging than the men’s version.

However, the women’s game was more difficult than the men’s in at least one aspect: the uniforms. The earliest women to play basketball did so in long skirts, resulting in injuries as they tripped over their hemlines. But hemlines rose steadily over the next few decades; by 1924, the PRHS women’s team uniform morphed into bloomers that hit just above the knee—the first uniform of its kind in the county, garnering the team the nickname the “Bloomer Girls”—and eventually into more athletically friendly gear.

Despite those differences in the game, athletes like those on the PRHS women’s team excelled in the sport. They won their first of many championships in 1924 and were particularly dominant in the 1940s, when they won five more.

It’s the kind of history that’s easily lost, but this exhibit is designed to make sure that doesn’t happen. “Together We Are Stronger: The Evolution of Team Sports Along the Kaw” will be on display in the former Perry Rural High School gym at Highland Community College from August 15th to September 27th. The exhibit is open to the public on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. For more information, visit Perry Pride.