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Andrew Thagard | Wednesday, February 18, 2004

It’s hard to believe that Josephine Ford’s five-acre snow-covered farm is less than two miles from the center of Notre Dame’s campus. It’s even more astonishing that this petite, gray-haired lady is the person she describes in her stories with a quiet British accent as she warms herself by an old fashioned stove in her living room.Then again, Ford wasn’t the woman whom her colleagues anticipated when she was hired by then theology department chair Father Albert Schlitzer in 1965 as one of the first women to join Notre Dame’s teaching faculty.The Holy Cross priests who dominated the University’s theology department at the time expected an overly assertive woman with short hair wearing a tweed suit, she recalls with a chuckle.Trailblazers, it seems, come in different shapes and sizes.Ford made University history when she was hired in 1965 and then again three years later when she became the first female Notre Dame faculty member to receive tenure. She captured the limelight again in 1978 – this time for suing the University alleging sexual discrimination in its promotion practices.Ford relates all of this and more with surprising calm as only someone who is accustomed to adventure can.The woman who says she’s been too busy to marry and “settle down” spent the first part of her life in England, training first to be a nurse and later a theologian. The idea of a woman teaching college level theology was unheard of in England during those years, according to Ford, so she moved to Africa to teach.When the school where Ford taught experienced financial trouble, she began to look for a new job. Both a British bishop and a professor at Oxford University whom she knew wrote to Notre Dame on her behalf.Although most of her colleagues in the theology department were supportive, a few questioned her ability in a field dominated by priests.”Some of the men said, ‘You’re a woman, you can’t know theology,’ as if somehow biology played a part,” she said.Despite such comments, Ford received tenure after three years. She languished, however, in the position of assistant professor while she watched colleagues whom she perceived to be less qualified get promoted over her from her position on the University’s appointment and promotions committee.”I had seen other people’s dossiers and I knew that I had more qualifications than many of the priests,” she said.Meanwhile, Ford banded with other women members of the faculty to discuss issues they faced. The informal group called themselves “Committee W” and it was there that she decided to file a sexual discrimination suit against the University.Ford believed then and now that Notre Dame’s actions were not intentional and she doesn’t recall officials or colleagues treating her badly before or after the lawsuit.”I don’t remember any anger. There was no acrimonious behavior on either side,” she said. “I think it [sexual discrimination] just never crossed their minds.”The University reached a settlement with Ford and the other plaintiffs out of court on March 16, 1981, agreeing to promote Ford to a full professor and renew Notre Dame’s commitment to promote and grant tenure to female faculty members at the same rate as their male counterparts. The settlement also established an appeals committee to assess the files of faculty who were denied tenure.In a letter distributed to all members of the faculty on Dec. 11, 1981 then-Provost Timothy O’Meara said that the University’s decision to settle was motivated in part by a desire to minimize disruption to academic life that the suit could potentially cause and fear of dissuading women from applying to faculty positions.Ford couldn’t have been happier with the decision. She accepted the promotion and remained at Notre Dame until her retirement three years ago after 33 years of teaching.”I think the fact that they settled out of court [suggests] that they realized they were wrong.”