Glamour magazine calls Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a “civil rights superhero” in naming her one of the magazine’s 2020 Women of the Year.
Ifill, a Baltimore-area resident, said she is a bit awe-struck by the thought of being honored in a special ceremony Monday. She recalled getting word that she had been selected.
“I thought it couldn’t be,” she said. “It was so strange. … When I learned that it was true, it was really quite lovely.”
Ifill was recognized along with Oscar-winning actress Regina King, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, and other distinguished women at a ceremony Monday evening during the 30th Anniversary Special for the publication-turned-online women’s magazine.
“For three decades, Glamour has recognized the most influential and accomplished women on the planet. Our Women of the Year awards celebrate trailblazers and power brokers and Nobel Peace Prize winners,” said editor-in-chief Samantha Barry in a prepared statement. “The 2020 class of honorees is no exception.”
Ifill was recognized personally by singer John Legend, actor Ryan Reynolds and U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi during a digital film airing on the magazine’s YouTube and Twitter channels, according to the publication.
"I love that I have the privilege [to be honored by] people who are powerful in their field and that they recognize civil rights,” Ifill said.
Ifill, 57, recalled growing up in New York City reading Glamour at a public library. The youngest of 10 children, she said she was raised in a house with little money, but plenty of family support.
She credits her family’s encouragement, an excellent public school education and solid public resources such as transportation and libraries as reasons why she was able to reach her goals.
“I could find jobs and travel because of robust public systems. I spent Saturdays at a public library,” she said. “It was a time where there was enough public [resources] to support a low-income family.”
And while she said that little Black girls are probably too young to be reading Glamour, she hopes that her story will inspire them to pursue their goals.
“Hopefully, this story stands for what is possible,” she said.
Ifill, who completed her undergraduate degree at Vassar College and earned her law degree from New York University School of Law, has held her current position with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund since 2013.
She returned to the organization as its seventh director-counsel, having previously worked there for five years litigating voting rights cases as an assistant counsel. She is the second woman to lead the group.
The position was held by another Marylander, the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, a Baltimore-native, who founded the Legal Defense Fund in 1940.
Ifill said she has great respect for Marshall, whose “story is an important story for the city of Baltimore.”
She described him as a hard-worker, who fought for the betterment of Black people including winning the monumental Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which resulted in a unanimous Supreme Court ruling that the “separate but equal” doctrine was unconstitutional, and fighting for and winning equal pay for Black teachers.
“He understood what it meant to put money in the pocket of Black people,” Ifill said.
As a designated civil rights superhero, when asked what super power she would want to have, Ifill paused for a moment, then said she has spent her career fighting for equity.
“My goal is always that there is fairness and fairness in the system,” she said. “It requires people who are prepared to listen with an open heart; people playing by the rules; and humanity recognized by everyone.”
She added: “I don’t know if there is a super power that would allow for all of those things to happen.”
Although her cousin, the late Gwen Ifill, is the most well known member of the family — as the first Black woman to host a nationally televised political news program — Sherrilyn Ifill said excellence runs in the family.
“We are all strong believers of education and fulfilling our dream. All my siblings are extraordinary,” Ifill said. “Most of us are drawn to public service and giving to others. That strain runs throughout the entire family.”