Waiting to Die, the Theology Professor Found, Is Pretty Boring

Author: Carol Schaal '91M.A.

Editor’s Note: Josephine Massyngbaerde Ford, professor emerita of theology, died May 16. Managing Editor Carol Schaal wrote this short profile of Ford for our Summer 1991 issue — under the same headline that appears above. It was part of a package of faculty stories entitled “Unsung Heroes.”

As the first woman to read a paper at a meeting of the Catholic Biblical Association, she had the temerity to wear a sleeveless dress. One newspaper criticized her otherwise modest garb, asking: “How can a woman theologian show her bare arms?”

British-born Josephine Massyngbaerde Ford, a theology professor at Notre Dame since 1965, is one of the school’s trail-blazing women. The territory she mapped was not easy to conquer, and the “firsts” she holds tell the tale: first laywoman professor at Notre Dame, first woman to receive tenure —and the first woman to file a sex discrimination suit against the University.

Ford filed the lawsuit in 1978, arguing that men with lesser qualifications than herself were being promoted. That indeed was the case, she says today, but adds that the treatment was not malicious: “They were so used to a double standard,” she says of the decision-makers at the time.

Her suit became part of a class-action suit which was settled out of court in 1981. Ford reached a separate settlement, was promoted to the rank of professor and received some past compensation. She prefers not to discuss it, however. “I don’t think it helps to bring up something negative that has been corrected,” she says.

These days the frail-looking woman — who refuses to divulge her age because, as she once typed on a form asking date of birth, “English ladies do not disclose” — lives in a house with no central heating and makes all her own bread. She also owns two horses, rides daily and is training her Arabian in dressage. “I want people to think of me as strong,” she says.

Strength is no small issue with her, and for good reason. The child who grew up in Sherwood Forest eventually decided to become a nun, entered an order dedicated to nursing and became a registered nurse and midwife. When she contracted tuberculosis, doctors recommended that she leave the order since she couldn’t keep up with its demands. Her next choice was teaching, and she went back to school and eventually earned a doctorate. From 1963 to ’65, she taught in the department of religious studies at Makerere University College in Uganda — until “they ran out of money to pay my salary,” she says.

Notre Dame hired her out of Africa without even requiring an interview, and she and Suzanne Kelly, O.S.B., officially became the first female members of Notre Dame’s faculty. But Ford’s health problems were far from over. In the early 1970s doctors told her to prepare for dying because complications of tuberculosis and a connective-tissue disease were draining her vitality. “I was never afraid,” she says. “I was bored.” She is still very much alive: She walks and rides her horses and teaches and participates in church activities and writes scholarly books and travels and is studying Spanish and mows the lawn and. . . .

About the only thing Ford has given up is walking her dog Kester, a Malamute that weighs more than she does, around the lakes on campus. Allowing oneself to be dragged behind an oversized dog in public view is not something an English lady does.