Edith Windsor was the rare activist whose most important battle was fought not in her youth but in her 80s as a historic player in the fight for same-sex marriage. The lawsuit she famously won at age 83 challenged the federal marriage ban for same-sex couples known as the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996. That Supreme Court ruling invalidating DOMA opened the door for another lawsuit in 2015 (Obergefell v. Hodges) to federally recognize same-sex marriages across the country.
Windsor’s final act came to an end when she died Tuesday at the age of 88 at her home in Manhattan, the New York Times reported.
Windsor’s long partnership with her wife the clinical psychologist Thea Spyer, who died in 2009, inspired millions of people both within the LGBTQ rights movement and those who would not have necessarily given gay rights a second thought. After Spyer and Windsor had dated for two years, Spyer proposed in 1967, kicking off a 40-year engagement. Instead of a traditional engagement ring, Windsor wore what became her iconic diamond brooch, keeping their relationship discreet while still honoring their partnership. Eventually the couple married in Canada in 2007, despite their union not being legally recognized in their home country or even, at the time, their home state of New York.
A longtime LGBTQ rights activist after retiring from her programming career at IBM, Windsor sued the government after her wife died following a decades-long battle with multiple sclerosis. Windsor inherited Spyer’s estate, but because of DOMA, Windsor was unable to receive the same rights and benefits that a widow with an opposite-sex spouse would have received — there were 1,138 of them, including receiving health care and Social Security benefits, or protection from immigration cases, to name a few. In Windsor’s case, she was obligated to pay more than $500,000 in state and federal taxes, from which heterosexual couples in the same situation would have been exempt.
Beyond her role in the landmark case against the federal government, Windsor became the grand marshal of pride marches, an honoree for LGBTQ organization gala dinners, the runner-up for Time’s highly coveted Person of the Year, and a role model for young people newly introduced to the idea that they could one day grow up to marry the person they love. Her relationship with Spyer captivated the hearts of those, especially, who didn’t quite understand just what was so important about same-sex couples having the ability to marry. (For more on their life together, check out or revisit Ariel Levy’s amazing 2013 New Yorker piece about the couple.)
Windsor recapped her relationship with Spyer in a video by Time in 2013. In it, she explains exactly why marriage goes beyond a union on paper. To Windsor, Spyer, and countless same-sex couples, the right to marry was about humanity and self worth:
You have to go back to why did we originally become engaged. ... We were driving out to the Hamptons, and she started talking to me about, “Well what would you do if we’d become engaged?” and I said, “I couldn’t, because I’d have to wear a ring, and [other people] would need to know, well, who is he, and when can we meet him?” By the time we got to the destination, she got down on one knee with the brooch, and asked me, “Edie Windsor, would you marry me?” and I said, “Yes, yes, yes,” and she was furious because I wouldn’t let her finish the sentence. All our friends knew, but [not] people you worked with, or clients — stuff like that.
At one point I talked to Thea and I said, “We have both been very successful in our fields; what could we have been if we hadn’t put all that energy into being hidden?” And she said, “Oh, it was nothing, it had no effect on me at all.” But within 10 minutes, we were both crying. So it had plenty of effect on both of us. ...
The day after [we got married], we felt differently. I query everybody who has a long-ranging relationship and then gets married, and I ask, “Is it different the next morning?” and they all say yes. There’s some legitimacy that we didn’t know we were lacking. … I think that the truth is that if you really care about the quality of somebody’s life as much as you do your own, you have it made.
Windsor leaves behind her second wife, Judith Kasen-Windsor. According to the Advocate, a public memorial will be held September 15 in New York. Windsor requested that instead of flowers, donations in her memory be made to the NYC LGBT Center, Callen-Lorde, the Hetrick-Martin Institute, and SAGE.