Columbia Law School

A few years ago, something funny happened to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: the octogenarian won the internet. But 20 years before she became a Supreme Court justice, she was already a civil rights bad-ass. In this excerpt from The Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik recount the time when RBG stood up to Columbia University's leadership and saved the jobs of more than two dozen women.

In 1972, the women of Columbia University had been waiting for Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And she was ready to fight.

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When she became the first tenured female professor at Columbia Law School, RBG had just convinced the Supreme Court to go where it hadn’t gone before—striking down a law for discriminating against women. The New York Times said Columbia had “scored a major coup: its law school, to its undisguised glee, has just bid for and won a woman for the job of full professor.” After all, according to the dean of the law school, “Mrs. Ginsburg” was actually qualified, apparently unlike all the other women they had refused to hire in 114 years of existence. (“Just one point about which I am curious,” RBG wrote the reporter when the piece came out. “Did the Times rule out Ms.?”)

RBG struck a surprisingly blunt note in the story. “The only confining thing for me is time. I’m not going to curtail my activities in any way to please them,” she said, apparently referring to the faculty and administration. “I don’t think I’ll have any problem,” she added a moment later. “People will be pleasant on the outside. Some of them may have reservations about what I’m doing, but I don’t think they’ll be expressed.”

Some people did have reservations, but the women at Columbia did not. Almost immediately, they began contacting her to air grievances. Did RBG know that Columbia employees didn’t have pregnancy coverage and that women got lower pension benefits and lower pay? Well, now that she did, RBG helped file a class-action lawsuit with one hundred named plaintiffs on behalf of female teachers and administrators at the university. They won. Did RBG know that the university was about to lay off more than two dozen maids, all women, but not a single janitor? “We feel that our hope in preventing these firings lies in getting visible the support that we know exists for these women on this campus,” wrote the activists on behalf of the maids, most of whom were women of color.

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RBG wrote to Columbia’s president, calling the firing of the maids a “grave and costly mistake” and urged him to “avoid a course destined to turn into a federal case.” She went to meetings to press the maids’ case. She even got the ACLU and its New York branch involved, much to the indignation of Walter Gellhorn, the Columbia Law professor who had helped RBG get her job at Rutgers. In a letter addressed to the “gentlemen” of the ACLU, Gellhorn accused the group of too quickly accusing the university of sex discrimination. (RBG scrawled furiously in the letter’s margins, “He misconceives nature of the case. No!!!”)

“The present episode,” Gellhorn said, made him fear that the group had “tended too much to begin screaming prematurely.” The word mansplaining was, unfortunately, decades away from being invented. But in the end, no one, maid or janitor, was fired.

RBG had tenure, but she didn’t have to pick these battles, especially when some of her colleagues regarded her with suspicion for being there at all. “There was a certain hostility to having her there, and the notion that she was only there because of the pressure the school faced to hire a woman,” recalls Diane Zimmerman, a student at Columbia Law at the time whom RBG mentored.

RBG knew people said “affirmative action” like it was an insult. “Others were of the view,” she later wrote, “that at last, the days of ‘negative action’ were over.”

Reprinted with permission from Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Copyright © 2015 by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik. Buy the book here.

Irin Carmon is a national reporter at MSNBC.

Shana Knizhnik is a recent graduate of the New York University School of Law and the creator of the Notorious R.B.G. Tumblr.