Edith Windsor: Gay Rights Activist and Pioneer

In the landmark ruling of United States v. Windsor, Edith Windsor helped change the course of history for same-sex marriages.

Up until recent history, same-sex marriage was either forbidden, shunned, or gave couples very few, if any, rights. Edith Windsor was a computer genius turned LGBTQ+ activist that changed the legal system for gay couples in every state with her legendary court case United States v. Windsor.

Edith “Edie” Windsor was born in Philadelphia in 1929. She received her BA from Temple University in 1950, went on to get her MA from New York University in 1957, and eventually did her postgraduate studies at Harvard. Being a woman in the 50s, going to university, and working at a notable company wasn’t exactly the norm back then. Windsor, a computer programmer, eventually climbed her way to the top of IBM as a Senior Systems Programmer.

In 1963, Edith met the love of her life, Thea Spyer, a clinical psychologist. Four years after meeting and falling in love, Spyer proposed on one knee with a diamond broach instead of a ring. They feared that a ring would cause attention and raise alarms regarding their sexuality.

The two spent 40 years engaged before deciding that their love was so pure they were willing to travel to Toronto, Canada, to officially be married in 2007. Their marriage was acknowledged by the state of New York. Just two years later, Thea Spyer passed away from Multiple Sclerosis, leaving Edith with nearly $350,000 in federal estate taxes. Surely that wasn’t something they had planned for…

One year after her wife’s death on Nov. 9, 2010, Edith Windsor, with the help of accomplished lawyer Roberta “Robbie” Kaplan, filed a lawsuit against the federal government contesting the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) violated the fifth amendment of equal protection. DOMA was enacted in 1996 by President Clinton. It acknowledged marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman and allowed individual states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages. This is important because only opposite-sex married couples could receive benefits from their spouse’s death.

“These benefits included but were not limited to: over 1,000 federal protections and privileges such as access to a spouse’s employment benefits, the recognition of the marriage itself, the rights of inheritance, joint tax returns and exemptions, and the right to cohabit together in a college or military housing,” an article from Cornell Law School states.

In 2011, the Obama administration concluded that Section 3 of DOMA, which bars the federal government from recognizing legal same-sex marriages, was unconstitutional and that the Department of Justice would no longer defend the law in court. It was also in 2011 that the state of New York legalized same-sex marriage.

On Dec. 7, 2012, the Supreme Court announced it would hear Edith Windsor’s case. It took six months for the Supreme Court to finally rule that Section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional in a 5-4 majority on June 27, 2013. Moreover, she received a full refund from the IRS for the federal and state taxes she was forced to pay, plus interest.

With such a huge win for the LGBTQ+ community, it was only fitting that Windsor would take on the honor of being the Grand Marshal of the NYC LGBT Pride March three days after the Supreme Court verdict.

The United States v. Windsor case opened the door for the next monumental Supreme Court ruling of Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, declaring all states must perform and recognize same-sex marriages and uphold the validity of the marriages across state lines.

Edith Windsor did end up remarrying in 2016 to banker and LGBTQ+ activist Judith Kasen-Windsor. In the same year, Lesbians Who Tech launched the Edie Windsor Coding Scholarship Fund. The scholarship funds coding school tuition for queer and gender nonconforming women and provides mentorship and other support systems.

At the age of 88, Edith “Edie” Windsor passed away on Sept. 12, 2017. She will forever be a civil rights pioneer who paved the way for greater things for the LGBTQ+ community in this country.