Edith Windsor, Same-Sex Marriage Activist, Dead at 88

A gay rights pioneer, she won the landmark Supreme Court case in 2013 that granted same-sex married couples federal recognition

Edith Windsor won landmark Supreme Court case in 2013 that granted same-sex married couples federal recognition. Credit: Richard Drew/AP

Edith Windsor, the LGBT activist whose 2013 Supreme Court win paved the way for same-sex marriage nationwide, died in Manhattan Tuesday. She was 88.

The New York Times reports that her wife, Judith Kasen-Windsor, confirmed her death but did not specify her cause of death. "I lost my beloved spouse Edie, and the world lost a tiny but tough as nails fighter for freedom, justice and equality. Edie was the light of my life," Kasen-Windsor said in a statement. "She will always be the light for the LGBTQ community which she loved so much and which loved her right back."

Her longtime attorney, Robbie Kaplan, said in a statement to Rolling Stone: "Representing Edie Windsor was and will always be the greatest honor of my life. She will go down in the history books as a true American hero. With Edie's passing, I lost not only a treasured client, but a member of my family. I know that Edie's memory will always be a blessing to Rachel, myself, and Jacob. I also know that her memory will be a blessing not only to every LGBT person on this planet, but to all who believe in the concept of b'tzelem elohim, or equal dignity for all."

Windsor has long been admired as a champion for LGBT rights, and her landmark case against the federal government ended up striking down the portion of the Defense of Marriage Act that prevented the federal recognition of same-sex marriages. Though the decision initially impacted just 13 states and the District of Columbia, the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 to expand the legalization of gay marriage to the entire nation.

When the 5–4 Supreme Court decision ruling the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional was announced on June 26th 2013, Windsor was at the apartment of her lawyer, Roberta Kaplan, to receive a congratulatory phone call from President Obama. And then she went to the Stonewall Inn to celebrate. This time, in contrast to 1969, the whole city was there to join the celebration. "The next generation is so far advanced over us," Windsor said. "I love that a lot of younger people now come out that would never have come out in the old days. Of course, they are born into a community already. They just have to discover it, whereas we were still building it.”

Born Edith Schlain in Philadelphia on June 20th, 1929, Windsor was the youngest of three children of James and Celia Schlain, Jewish immigrants from Russia. She grew up a serious student who did well in school, and in 1946, she enrolled at Temple University.

She was set to marry her brother's friend, Saul Windsor, but she broke off their engagement when she fell in love with a female classmate. By the time she graduated from Temple, however, Edith had decided she no longer wanted to pursue a lesbian lifestyle, and married Saul in 1950. They divorced less than a year later.

"My mother never discussed sex with me, but when I told her I was getting a divorce, she said, 'How is the sex?' And I said, 'It's not,'" Windsor recounted to Out magazine in 2015. "And she said, 'Then there's nothing to hold you there.' That was all. If my parents had known the truth, would they have stopped loving me? I don't think so. Ultimately when they met Thea, it was perfectly obvious that we were together."

Windsor met Thea Spyer, at the time already a clinical psychologist, at Greenwich Village restaurant Portofino in 1963. As the story goes, the pair met and danced the night away. They continued to cross paths over the next two years, but it wasn't until the summer of 1965, four years before Stonewall, that the pair began dating. "We made love all afternoon and went dancing at night — and that was the beginning," Windsor recalled decades later in the documentary Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement. "We immediately just fit – our bodies fit," she says in the film. 

Two years after that, Spyer proposed to Windsor, an occasion they marked with a diamond brooch – rather than a diamond ring – and thus began the pair's four decades-long engagement.

In 1977, when Spyer was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Windsor cared for her around the clock; they married in 2007 in a Toronto ceremony officiated by Canada's first openly gay judge. When Spyer died in 2009, however, Windsor was hit with a $350,000 penalty in federal estate taxes that she wouldn't have been if they were a heterosexual couple. Thus began her uphill battle against the Supreme Court for same-sex marriage equality.

Windsor remarried in September 2016. She is survived by her wife, LGBT activist Judith Kasen.