“I kept being the first.”

Jeanne Jourdan’s leadership philosophy is one of constant reflection and renewal: “learning who you are is a lifelong journey.”

A key part of Jeanne’s path has included being a repeated trailblazer in the legal profession. In reflecting on the journey that led to her being the first woman in various legal positions, Jeanne observed that “I was a product of my time,” the early 1970s when women were asking, “what do I do besides what I’m doing right now?” Jeanne earned a Bachelor’s degree in History and then devoted the next 11 years to growing and raising her family. After having five daughters in eight years, Jeanne asked herself, “what do I do next?” She looked around and realized “it was a time when people wanted to be social activists. I wanted to be a public defender.”

She entered law school at the University of Notre Dame and studied “more than full time” while continuing to raise her family. Upon graduation, she took a position with the City of South Bend’s attorney’s office before opening a private practice with another woman. She then spent time working part-time for the Institute for Law and the Handicapped at Logan Center.

From these professional “twists and turns,” she determined that for women, “government was the way to go.” Because of the cultural climate of the time, women found it difficult, if not impossible, to be hired into private practice. For example, a classmate of Jeanne’s who graduated with honors requested to work “only 40 hours” per week. She offered to accept a lower salary in exchange for this “reduced” workweek. Even though she and many other women were willing to work “full-time for part-time pay,” jobs were not available to them.

As a result, Jeanne became a Public Defender, the first female Public Defender in Saint Joseph County. Within a few years, she was invited by Prosecuting Attorney Mike Barnes to become a Deputy Prosecuting Attorney. As part of his campaign promises, Barnes vowed to take all house robbery cases that didn’t plead out to trial and placed Jeanne in charge of these cases, making her the first female Deputy Prosecuting Attorney who regularly did trial work.

In 1981, Jeanne was appointed as a Superior Court judge. At the time of her appointment, there were fewer than a dozen female judges in the whole of Indiana. Jeanne’s appointment was another female first in Saint Joseph County. She would spend the next 18 years on the bench before retiring.

Although retired, Jeanne continues to teach trial skills part-time at the University of Notre Dame Law School and the National Institute of Trial Advocacy. She finds herself still active in her community, specifically her neighborhood. Jeanne states that “in spite of myself, I find a willingness to do,” which has resulted in her being one of the “neighborhood do-goods.” In her retirement Jeanne has come to recognize the strong “value in the friendship of other women and their generosity of time and attention” and encourages others to do so as well.


Information compiled from oral history collected by The Michiana Women Leaders Project

Jeanne was a 2018 CMWL honoree.