Edith Windsor, Plaintiff in Same-Sex Marriage Ruling, Dies at 88

  • In 2013 the Supreme Court expanded the definition of marriage
  • She hailed the decision as ‘beginning of the end of stigma’

Windsor in front of the US Supreme Court on March 27, 2013.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Edith Windsor, the Manhattan resident whose love affair formed the basis for the 2013 Supreme Court decision establishing federal rights for same-sex married couples, has died. She was 88.

She died on Tuesday in Manhattan, the New York Times reported, citing her wife, Judith Kasen-Windsor, whom she married in 2016.

United States v. Windsor, the court case that struck down part of a law denying federal benefits for same-sex spouses, stemmed from Windsor’s four-decade relationship with Thea Spyer and the $363,000 in estate taxes Windsor owed at Spyer’s death.

The tax bill was due because, though married in Toronto in 2007, Windsor and Spyer were not considered spouses under U.S. law, so Windsor couldn’t inherit their New York apartment and summer cottage tax-free. The Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, defined marriage as “only a legal union between one man and one woman.”

As Windsor noted, she wouldn’t have owed the estate taxes “if I had been married to a man named Theo” rather than a woman named Thea.

Represented by New York-based law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, and by the American Civil Liberties Union, Windsor filed suit in 2010. In 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York ruled 2-1 in her favor. The Supreme Court took up the case, and she was on hand to listen to oral arguments in March 2013.

On June 26, 2013, by a vote of 5-4, the high court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act for putting “same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage,” as Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote. That decision was followed two years later by the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling that same-sex couples had a constitutional right to marry nationwide.

Windsor, known as Edie, celebrated her win with her lawyers at a press conference at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York, where her lead lawyer, Roberta Kaplan, told reporters:

“It is important to recognize that today’s court victory never would have happened without the tenacity and courage of a five-foot-tall, 100-pound lady by the name of Edie Windsor.”

She said Windsor “is now a hero to millions of Americans because she personifies the meaning of fundamentally American concepts like courage, devotion, citizenship, equality and justice.”

Windsor told the assembled reporters that the case marked “the beginning of the end of stigma, of lying about who we are. It’s a different level of dignity than we’ve had.”

Edith Schlain was born on June 20, 1929, in Philadelphia, the youngest of three children of Russian-born Jews, James and Celia Schlain. Her father lost his candy and ice cream store, then his house, in the Great Depression, she said, according to a 2012 article in the New York Times.

After graduating in 1950 from Temple University in Philadelphia, she married Saul Windsor, a friend of her brother. She said she knew the relationship was not right for her within a year, and they divorced.

She moved to New York City, “to let myself be gay,” she recalled in an interview with the New York Times. She also began graduate studies in mathematics, receiving a master’s degree from New York University in 1957.

She began a 16-year career at Armonk, New York-based International Business Machines Corp. in systems architecture and operations. On a company fellowship, she spent two semesters studying applied mathematics at Harvard University. In 1968, she was promoted to senior systems programmer, the highest technical position at IBM.

In 1963, at a lesbian-friendly restaurant in Greenwich Village called Portofino, Windsor met Spyer, a clinical psychologist, and they “danced together all night,” she recalled. Their attraction was rekindled two years later at a party in the Hamptons on Long island. In 1967 they became engaged, with Spyer giving Windsor a diamond pin.

Spyer was diagnosed in 1977 with multiple sclerosis and had to use a cane, then crutches, then a wheelchair, as her paralysis worsened.

With Spyer’s health continuing to deteriorate, the two women traveled to Toronto with friends in May 2007 to marry under Canada’s more-permissive laws. Justice Harvey Brownstone of the North Toronto Family Court officiated at the Sheraton Gateway Hotel, according to their wedding announcement in the Times.

They shared their wedding day and their story with filmmakers for a documentary, “Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement” (2009).

Spyer died on Feb. 5, 2009, less than two years after the wedding. Windsor said she almost died as well, suffering total heart stoppage while hospitalized for stress cardiomyopathy, or “broken heart syndrome.

In 2016 she was married again, this time to Kasen-Windsor, a vice president at Wells Fargo Advisors.

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