Edith Windsor, Lesbian Trailblazer Who Changed Your Life, Has Died

Edith Windsor kept a thank you note from a 9-year-old named Grace, who’d written to thank her for making it possible for her parents to marry. She showed it to a reporter from Time Magazine who came to interview her in 2013, and also on her wall she had a framed picture from Alison Bechdel, also expressing thanks for “paving the way.” They called her an “unlikely activist,” Edie Windsor, who radiated with magnetic charm, and who died today, in Manhattan, at the age of 88. Her second wife, Judith Kasen-Windsor, who she married in 2016, has not specified a cause of death.

Edith Windsor, whose parents came to the U.S from Russia when she was a little girl, read voraciously, and kept forever the 19-volume dictionary her father used to learn English. When Edith Windsor was 13, she was elected vice president of her eighth-grade class. Edith Windsor’s mother told her that if anybody at school called her a “dirty Jew,” she should pull their hair.

She told the reporter from Time Magazine that once upon a time she’d seen a lesbian couple dancing at a gay bar and thought to herself, “I hope I have that when I’m old.”

Edith Windsor met the love of her life, Thea Spyer, at a restaurant named Portofino, in Greenwich Village. She’d asked her friend, “if you know where the lesbians are, please take me,” and so her friend took her. Thea was a psychologist. Edith was a computer programmer. Maybe you know this already, maybe you’ve seen the documentary.

When Edith and Thea were engaged, Thea wore a circular diamond pin instead of a ring, so people wouldn’t ask too many questions and expose them. They couldn’t be out, not then. There were some places where they could be out, certain homes and bars and vacation towns. But nothing like it is today.

Women like Edie Windsor and quite notably Edie Windsor herself created change, fighting for things many young gays take for granted, that later generations won’t really understand how we ever lived without. She lived a double life; she had to. Nothing like it is today — like could she have ever imagined that on the day of her death, a social media application called Twitter would turn into a virtual collage of selfies various LGBTQ people had taken with Edie Windsor, and their memories of her?

In 2012, Edith Windsor went to court, challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act, protesting that she was asked to pay $363,000 in estate taxes when Thea died because the federal government did not recognize their marriage. They’d been together for 44 years. “It’s just a terrible injustice, and I don’t expect that from my country. I think it’s a mistake that has to get corrected,” Edie told NPR.

In 2012, a judge in Windsor’s case ruled that Section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional, and the case then went on to the Supreme Court. In 2013, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision also declaring Section 3 of DOMA to be unconstitutional and enshrining that fact as federal law. Same-sex married couples were granted federal recognition and earned access to myriad federal benefits. State laws banning same-sex marriage around the nation remained in place until another Supreme Court decision in 2015.

Thea Spyer, Edith’s wife, had been kicked out of Sarah Lawrence for kissing a woman — which is funny to imagine, I mean, it’s Sarah Lawrence. Thea was intentionally “playing the field” when she met Edie at the restaurant but life comes at you fast, doesn’t it?

After dinner, Edith and Thea went to a party. At the party, they danced all night.


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Riese is the 35-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

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44 Comments

  1. This is hitting me more than I thought it would. Maybe it’s because I’m at a point in my relationship where we’re seriously talking about getting married – something I honestly never thought would happen.

    Either way, may you rest in power, Edie. Thank you for everything.

  2. Thank you, Edith, you changed my life for the better and for that I’ll be forever grateful.
    What a wonderful, ground breaking, passionate and strong woman. She accomplished so much for gay rights and women in STEM leaving a deep and lasting impact. Thank you for standing up and refusing to let your love and life be less than anyone else’s. You are an inspiration to us all.
    Rest well, lovely and brave lady. Give Thea a big hug from all of us

  3. So sad. Rest in grace, Edie.

    The law firm where I work represented her in the SCOTUS case, so I did get to breathe air near her a few times. In addition to be skip-a-breath stunning in person, she also smelled so good! And not like a nice perfume or lotion, but just literally that her pheromones were just naturally lovely. What a woman.

  4. I’m devastated.

    I met her last year and it was such a privilege — she was radiant and warm and sharp. We were in the presence of an icon, and we all felt it. She was a member of my synagogue as well, which has always seemed to me to be such an honor and (again!) a privilege.

    I’m in law school now partially because of her and Robbie Kaplan. I heard the news right after leaving the first meeting of my school’s LGBTQ group for the semester, which I guess is fitting. I honestly feel at a loss without her.

    BD”E. May her memory be for a blessing.

  5. On my first read, it was the closing sentence that got me.

    On reread, though, this: “Women like Edith Windsor and quite notably Edith Windsor herself created change, fighting for things many young gays take for granted, that later generations won’t really understand how we ever lived without.”

    What a life, to fight knowing that if you succeed, those who come next should never be able to (should never have to) fully understand what you were up against.

  6. Such a beautiful and fitting piece. I learned about Edie right here. You told me to watch her documentary so we did. Then you told me about her court case. When she won in the United States vs Windsor you told me the address of her lawyer so we could write a thank you. And we did. And you know, she wrote back. We saved it. We pull it out sometimes to make sure it wasn’t a dream. To make sure we remember what kind of impact one person can have. What kind of impact love can have.

    Rest In Peace Edie.

  7. > She told the reporter from Time Magazine that once upon a time she’d seen a lesbian couple dancing at a gay bar and thought to herself, “I hope I have that when I’m old.”

    Whilst I might wish for such myself, it’d be more useful if I were to strive to hold her beacon high.

  8. A nice tribute to one of your greatest ladies!

    No connection at all but I read somewhere that she is known as Edie–and that brought forth the Edie from Imagine me and you and her ‘I am ecstatic!’ comment to Heck’s ‘Are you gay?’ Like both Edies.

  9. I wish i could find this interview with her that I watched after the SCOTUS ruling.

    In it she talked about attending some meeting with fellow activists and hearing someone say it wasn’t the right time to fight for marriage equality – her response was that she didn’t have time to wait for the right time.

    And then she said “there’s no wrong time for justice.” And I wrote that on a sticky note and put it where I can still see it from my desk.

  10. Edie Windsor, Thea Spyer, and Robbie Kaplan–three Jewish lesbians who make me, another Jewish lesbian, very proud.

    She was a real hero of mine, as she was to many people. I think part of the reason is that she’s the lesbian grandma we all wanted–always so kind and joyful, and such an example of bring proudly queer, with such a great love story and so much fight and spirit.

  11. There are no words to describe my sorrow. Quite simply, I wouldn’t be married without her. And that’s not an exaggeration. What she did, with her court case, paved the way for all of us to be able to marry. She was a remarkable woman in every single way. RIP, darling Edie.

  12. My heart has been heavy since I heard of her passing. I had the absolute great honor of meeting her two years ago at the AMPA (American Military Partners Association) gala in DC. All of us active duty and retired gay military folks would just gather around this little tiny woman and crack up at the things she would say. She was so kind and funny and just a powerhouse of energy. My wife and I, like so many, shook her hand and gave her a hug and she brushed “shmuts” off my uniform. She was grandmother to us all and will be missed dearly.

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