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Edith Windsor, Gay Rights Activist And Plaintiff In Landmark Supreme Court Case, Dies


Edith Windsor's 2013 Supreme Court case led to the legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S. two years later. Windsor died today at the age of 88. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg looks back on Windsor's life and her legal legacy.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: In 1996, Congress by overwhelming majorities enacted a federal law called the Defense of Marriage Act, defining marriage as between a man and a woman. That meant that the federal government would not recognize a same-sex union even if a state did. Nearly two decades later, Edith Windsor would challenge the law after Thea Spyer, her spouse and partner of 44 years, died and Windsor was hit with an estate tax bill of $363,000 from the federal government, money that she would not have owed if her spouse had been a man.


EDITH WINDSOR: If Thea was Theo, I would not have had to pay that. It's heartbreaking. It's just a terrible injustice. And I don't expect that from my country.

TOTENBERG: That was Windsor in a 2013 interview with NPR when her case was about to be argued in the Supreme Court. In June of that year, she won, and the reasoning of that decision was not lost on the lower federal courts. Within months, federal judges began to invalidate state laws that discriminated against same-sex couples, too. And just two years after Windsor's signal victory, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional state laws that made it illegal for same-sex couples to marry. The effect was to legalize same-sex marriage in America.

Edith Windsor was born in 1929, shortly before her parents lost their home and business in the Depression. As a teenager, she was by her own account very popular with boys. And after graduating from Temple University, Windsor got married. But at the movies, she secretly identified with leading man Dick Powell, not his frequent co-star Ruby Keeler. So after less than a year Edie, as she was known, and her husband divorced.


WINDSOR: I told him the truth. I said, honey, you deserve a lot more. You deserve somebody who thinks you're the best 'cause you are, OK? And I need something else.

TOTENBERG: She moved to New York City, worked as a secretary, got a master's degree in mathematics at NYU, and soon was on her way to a career as a top programmer at IBM. All the while, she hid her homosexuality.


WINDSOR: Societally that was - you know, that was impossible. I really was a middle-class girl. And of course you didn't want to be queer.

TOTENBERG: Finally, though, she asked an old friend for help.


WINDSOR: If you know where the lesbians are, please take me. And so she took me to the Portofino Restaurant.

TOTENBERG: There she met Thea Spyer, who for 42 years would be the love of her life and eventually her wife. Spyer was a psychologist with a large New York practice. In 1967 on a drive to the country, Thea asked Edie what she would do if she got an engagement ring. After all, if co-workers saw it, they would want to meet the guy.


WINDSOR: And when we got to the house, she got out of the car and got down on her knees and said, Edie Windsor, will you marry me? And this pin appeared.

TOTENBERG: A circle pin with diamonds. At the time, of course, there was no place the two could actually marry. But they led good lives together. Eventually, though, Thea was diagnosed with MS, and in time Edie took early retirement to take care of her partner. They both hoped for the day when they would legally marry. And finally, when it was clear that Spyer would not live much longer, they decided to go to Canada, taking all the medical equipment with them that was necessary plus two best men and two best women.


WINDSOR: The fact is, you know, marriage is this magic thing. I mean, forget all the financial stuff. Marriage, it symbolizes commitment and love like nothing else in the world.

TOTENBERG: Spyer died 21 months later. Edie Windsor would go on to become an octogenarian rock star in the gay rights community. Last year, she was remarried to Judith Kasen, a fellow LGBT activist. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.