The activist who fought for same-sex marriage
Edith Windsor 1929–2017
Edith Windsor was still grieving the 2009 death of her wife, Thea Spyer, when she received a bill from the IRS for $363,053 in estate taxes. Spyer had left Windsor—her wife of two years and partner for more than 40—all of her assets. But because the U.S. government didn’t recognize same-sex marriage, Windsor, then 79, wasn’t eligible for the spousal exemption on estate taxes. “If Thea was a Theo, I wouldn’t have had to pay,” said Windsor. Furious, she decided to sue the federal government for a refund. Her lawsuit resulted in a momentous 2013 Supreme Court ruling invalidating a section of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. And two years later, the court declared gay marriage a constitutional right. “To get married is a very big deal,” Windsor said. “And it’s an even bigger deal if you’ve been denied it.”
Born in Philadelphia to Russian-Jewish immigrants, Windsor “felt attracted to women from a young age but feared revealing herself as ‘queer,’” said The Washington Post. She married a male friend of her brother’s after graduating from Temple University, but they divorced within a year. Windsor moved to New York City, she said, “to let myself be gay.” She joined IBM as a computer programmer in 1958, and five years later she met Spyer— a clinical psychologist— at a gay-friendly restaurant. They bonded over a love of dancing, and soon became an item. Inspired by the 1969 Stonewall riots, the couple “marched in gay pride parades, joined gay and lesbian organizations, and lived openly as lesbians,” said The New York Times. But “their lives changed irrevocably” in 1977, when Spyer was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As Spyer’s body “slowly deteriorated with paralysis,” Windsor became her full-time caregiver.
The couple married in Toronto in 2007, “when they realized they might not be alive” by the time New York state legalized gay marriage, said the Associated Press. Spyer died two years later, leaving Windsor so distraught she suffered “an attack of stress cardiomyopathy, also known as broken heart syndrome.” The 2013 Supreme Court decision would ease her grief. “If I had to survive Thea,” she said, “what a glorious way to do it.”
James Estrin/The New York Times/Redux, Avco Embassy/Everett Collection ■