This post is sponsored by HBO and Gentleman Jack.
Last summer, Anne Lister was honored with a blue plaque — the United Kingdom’s official symbol for marking a place of historical significance — at Holy Trinity church in Goodramgate, York. The plaque was the first in the UK’s history to be bordered with a rainbow, which is fitting because Holy Trinity church was the site of Anne Lister’s wedding to Ann Walker on Easter Sunday in 1834. Or, well, their symbolic wedding. Marriage equality obviously wasn’t a reality in the 19th century, but Anne had been determined to have a wife her entire life, and being a devout Christian, she and her partner exchanged rings and took communion together that Sunday to signify their commitment to each other, before God and York’s most prominent clergyman. It was a private marriage, between just the two of them.
When HBO asked us to partner with them to celebrate their upcoming Gentleman Jack series by choosing a handful of queer women to highlight on #WomenCrushWednesday, we knew our first choice had to be Edie Windsor. If anyone knows about spending a life hoping to get married to her soul mate, it’s the lead plaintiff in one of the most influential cases in the LGBT community’s fight for marriage equality. In 2013, in the case of United States v Windsor, the United States Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which meant the federal government had to recognize marriages performed in states where it was legal. It was the precursor to SCOTUS’ 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges which held that the Fourteenth Amendment requires all 50 states to license and recognize same-sex marriage.
On the day she won her case, four years after the death of her partner of 42 years, Dr. Thea C. Spyer, Edie emerged from the courthouse in a black suit with a pink scarf flapping in the wind, arms outstretched in victory. It’s an image that will live in the minds of those of us who saw it — and in the archives of LGBTQ history — forever.
But marriage equality isn’t the beginning or end of Edie’s legacy. Edie was the first person to receive an IBM personal computer in New York City, which makes sense: After studying mathematics at NYU and Harvard, Edie went to work at IBM as a mainframe programmer and worked her way up to the highest technical rank in the company. In 1975, she started her own PC consulting firm where she developed software and taught LGBTQ charities, businesses and organizations how to become more tech savvy. In 1987, she was honored by the National Computing Conference as a Pioneer in Operating systems.
Edie had to stay closeted at IBM, but once she was her own boss, she began her LGBTQ activist career in earnest. She volunteered for the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, the East End Gay Organization, the LGBT Community Center, and served on the board for SAGE. She also founded a social justice improv group called Old Queers Acting Up.
Edie and Thea’s love story has been commemorated in the SCOTUS ruling, a documentary called Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement, and even on Comedy Central’s Drunk History. They met dancing in the West Village in the ’60s, moved in together, got engaged, went on vacation, returned home to the Stonewall Riots and never stopped fighting for their right to get married and for the rights of their community.
In 1821, Anne Lister wrote of her partner, “She is my wife in honour & in love,” but that’s all she ever could be. Almost 200 years later, Edie Windsor ran down the steps of the Supreme Court in her pink scarf, proclaiming: “Marriage is a magic word. And it is magic throughout the world. It has to do with our dignity as human beings, to be who we are.”