Edith Windsor, the fiery LGBTQ rights icon whose legal battles for same sex marriage rights resulted in the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, died on Tuesday, her wife, Judith Kasen-Windsor, confirmed to the New York Times. She was 88.
Reacting to news of Windsor’s death, her longtime attorney Roberta Kaplan released a short statement, praising her as a “true American hero.”
Windsor first rose to national prominence by suing the federal government for spousal benefits after her first wife, Thea Spyer, whom she’d legally married in Canada—died in 2009. DOMA, which banned all federal recognition of same sex marriage, barred her from receiving those benefits.
Windsor’s case, United States v. Windsor, made it to the Supreme Court, and in 2013, the Court ruled in her favor. “DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote. He went on:
The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.
In 2015, the Court went on to affirm the right of same sex-couples to marry across the entire country.
Born Edith Schlain, Windsor kept her last name after marrying Saul Windsor in a union that lasted just one year.
“Finally, I said, ‘Honey, you deserve more,’ ” Windsor told The New York Times in 2012. “‘You deserve someone who feels you’re the most desirable person, and I need something else.’ And I was right. He married the right girl and had a lovely life.”
One weekend, she heard that Spyer was going out to the Hamptons and would be dropping someone off at the home of some lesbians she knew. Windsor called them and said, “I know this is presumptuous, but, please, can I come stay with you?” While everyone else went out dancing, she waited up all night for Spyer to arrive—she finally showed up the next afternoon. “I said, ‘Is your dance card full?’” Windsor recalled. “She said, ‘It is now,’ and I grabbed her and then we made love all afternoon.”
In 1967, Windsor proposed to Spyer. They waited 40 years before they got married in Canada.
Windsor spent decades working tirelessly as an LGBTQ activist in and around New York, including once going to so far to donate her Cadillac to a Village Halloween parade in Manhattan where, upon seeing her name on the car’s “donated by” sign, she turned to Spyer, and said “It’s a whole new world.”
Through her tireless efforts, Windsor became something of a superstar in the world of LGBTQ activism. Speaking with NYU’s alumni magazine, Kaplan said “Spending the day with Edie in Washington is like spending a day with Mick Jagger. A Congressional aide told her she was the Rosa Parks of our generation.”
Celebrating the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision declaring marriage as a fundamental right for all Americans, Windsor told The New Yorker she was “thrilled with the content of the decision.”
But, despite the monumental victory, Windsor was realistic about how it fit into the larger fight for rights and representation for the LGBTQ community.
“I think it’s only the next major step,” she continued:
We have a history: beginning to see each other with Stonewall, when a whole new community began to recognize itself; the AIDS crisis—we’d always been separated! Gays and lesbians, separated! But when lesbians came forward to help with the victims of AIDS, we all saw each other very differently. I see this as another huge step towards equality—I combine, it, obviously, with my case.
Rest in Power, Edith Windsor.