"Step by Step, Case by Case:" Remembering Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Updated: Sep 29

By Jennifer Smith, Executive Director


"You just have to move forward and get to work, step by step, case by case." If I could, I would emblazon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s words on the wall of every public defender office around the world.


In the week since her death, the world has reflected on Justice Ginsburg’s accomplishments as a champion of gender equality and her status as a feminist icon. We have so much to thank her for. She paved the way not only for women lawyers like me, but for the ILF to exist as a woman-founded, women-led legal aid organization fighting for justice around the world.


Today, what I find myself reflecting on with gratitude is not just the totality of her achievements, but the intelligent, incremental, and persistent manner in which she achieved them. Justice Ginsburg advanced women’s rights in the U.S. case-by-case, taking small cases to slowly build her larger argument for gender equality.


As a lawyer in the 1970’s, she brought a series of cases to the United States Supreme Court that served to slowly educate the all-male justices that gender discrimination existed. Starting with Reed v. Reed in 1971, she challenged a state law that said “males must be preferred to females” in appointing the executor of an estate. Though the Reed decision forced Congress and state legislatures across the country to undo clause after clause of explicit gender discrimination embedded in our system of laws, it didn’t go as far as Justice Ginsburg had hoped. Still, she was undeterred and continued to challenge gender discrimination wherever she saw it. Five years later, she achieved another landmark decision, persuading the court to take a more exacting approach to scrutinizing laws that might be discriminatory on the basis of sex.


In many ways, the work that she and so many others have done to fight for justice in the U.S. guides the ILF’s approach to legal reform and systems building. Around the world, we fight for justice and challenge discrimination based on gender, race, or other status. Importantly, we work to instill Justice Ginsburg’s lesson in lawyers that, “real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” We mentor and support lawyers to litigate change case-by-case so that they have the tools to lead the fight for justice and equality, not just today, but for generations to come.


We believe, as Justice Ginsburg did, that every brick we lay provides a floor on which those who come after us can build. Thank you, Justice Ginsburg. We promise to carry your legacy forward and continue to work with lawyers around the world to fight injustice with conviction, courage, and perseverance.


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