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Sep 12, 2017 5:14 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Edith Windsor, LGBT Rights Pioneer And Southampton Resident, Dies At 88

Edie Windsor
Sep 13, 2017 12:08 PM

Edith Windsor, a prominent LGBT rights activist and the sole plaintiff in a 2013 Supreme Court case that served as a landmark victory paving the way for same-sex marriage in the United States, died on Tuesday in Manhattan at age 88.

Her wife, Judith Kasen-Windsor, confirmed her death. The cause of death has not yet been specified. Ms. Windsor and Ms. Kasen-Windsor, a vice president of Wells Fargo Advisors, wed in 2016.

“I lost my beloved spouse, Edie, and the world lost a tiny but tough-as-nails fighter for freedom, justice and equality,” Ms. Kasen-Windsor said in a statement. “Edie was the light of my life. She will always be the light for the LGBT community, which she loved so much and which loved her right back.”

Ms. Windsor had deep ties to Long Island and, specifically, the East End. She began dating her first wife, Thea Spyer, a psychologist, in 1965, when they were living in Greenwich Village and often vacationed on the South Fork. They bought a home in 1968 in the Town of Southampton.

In 2007, Ms. Windsor, then 77, and Ms. Spyer, then 75, were residing in Southampton when they married in Toronto, where same-sex marriage was legal.

Ms. Spyer was suffering from multiple sclerosis at the time and died two years later. Ms. Windsor inherited her late spouse’s estate but was required to pay $363,000 in taxes—an amount that she would have been exempt from paying if she were married to a man.

Ms. Windsor challenged the law and went on to sue the Internal Revenue Service. After navigating the New York court system for years, her case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, culminating in a 5-4 decision declaring that the federal Defense of Marriage Act—the legislation that defined marriage as only between one man and one woman—was unconstitutional.

“‘United States vs. Windsor’ is a tremendously important case in the American Civil Rights landscape,” Suzanne Goldberg, a professor at Columbia Law School and former senior staff attorney at Lambda Legal, the country’s first legal organization focused on achieving full equality for lesbian and gay people, told The Press in a July profile of Ms. Windsor. “When the court struck down the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, it opened the door to nationwide marriage equality for same-sex couples.

“Edie Windsor’s willingness to stand up and challenge the government’s discrimination against her has forever changed the path of LGBT rights in the United States,” she added.

That Supreme Court case set precedent for Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 decision that guaranteed the right to marry to same-sex couples in every state—a fact that brought great pride to Ms. Windsor.

“People stopped me on the street, people stopped me on the subway to say, ‘Thank you for what you’ve done—you’ve changed my life,’” Ms. Windsor said in July. “People say I’m an icon. I guess I am an icon, it turns out.”

“Representing Edie Windsor was and will always be the greatest honor of my life,” said Roberta Kaplan, the attorney who represented Ms. Windsor in the Supreme Court case. “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.”

In July, Ms. Windsor served as honorary chair, alongside her wife, of the annual Hamptons Tea Dance, an LGBT celebration originally produced by the Empire Pride Agenda, an organization that disbanded in 2015 when its mission to achieve marriage equality was fulfilled. Ms. Windsor served as a marriage ambassador for the organization, and she also belonged to the now-dissolved East End Gay Organization.

“Those who knew Edie will never forget her warmth, her kindness, her generosity of spirit, or her passion for helping others,” said LGBT Network President and CEO David Kilmnick. “By continuing to fight for those in need, and continuing the fight for full equality, we honor the life and the spirit of our friend Edie.”

Born Edith Schlain in Philadelphia on June 20, 1929, Ms. Windsor was the youngest of three children of James and Celia Schlain, Jewish immigrants from Russia whose candy store and house were quarantined and subsequently foreclosed when Edith and a brother contracted polio during the Great Depression. By all accounts of those who knew Ms. Windsor, she was as tough as her stature was small.

In 1950, Ms. Windsor, deciding not to live a lesbian life—of much greater taboo seven decades ago—married her brother’s friend, Saul Windsor. It was the same year that she received a bachelor’s degree from Temple University. Less than a year later, the pair divorced.

Ms. Windsor moved to New York in the mid-1950s and earned a master’s degree in applied mathematics from New York University. She became a computer programmer at IBM in 1958.

But she was wary to reveal her sexual orientation to co-workers and it was not until 1967, when Ms. Spyer proposed to Ms. Windsor, that she became publicly open.

“‘Edie, you lied to us!’” said Ms. Windsor, mimicking the reaction of her co-workers. “The dynamic changed. We began to come out.”

Citing a void in her life after the death of Ms. Spyer, Ms. Windsor “found love” again after meeting Ms. Kasen-Windsor at a 2015 Hamptons Tea Dance. The two, both LGBT activists, married in September 2016 and moved into Ms. Windsor’s Southampton home.

Politcians both national and local recognized Ms. Windsor’s influence in the short time since her death.

“America’s long journey toward equality has been guided by countless small acts of persistence, and fueled by the stubborn willingness of quiet heroes to speak out for what’s right,” former President Barack Obama said in a statement. “Few were as small in stature as Edie Windsor—and few made as big a difference to America.”

“I am heartbroken by the passing of my friend Edith Windsor,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said. “Edie was an iconic New Yorker who carried on the fight for equality and achieved a historic victory on the path to justice. She embodied the New York spirit, taking it upon herself to tear down barriers for others and ensure marriage equality was the law of the land.”

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A great big "thank you" is quite well due.
By Mr. Z (11847), North Sea on Sep 12, 17 7:39 PM
She is a hero of divorce attorneys, marriage counselors and mediators who have enjoyed a second career and new streams of income from the all the new clients.
By SlimeAlive (1181), Southampton on Sep 13, 17 6:04 AM

You sound jealous.
By johnj (1024), Westhampton on Sep 13, 17 1:11 PM
Rest in Peace, Edie, and Thank You for all you have done.
By Robert I Ross (250), Hampton Bays on Sep 14, 17 3:45 PM
She and I found ourselves shopping together so often that we eventually developed a "supermarket friendship". I was so very sorry to hear she'd died---last time we chatted was just a few weeks ago, an encounter as delightful as all the others. Amazing to think such a little half-pint made such a major contribution to history! Condolences to her loved ones.
By June Bug (2680), SOUTHAMPTON on Sep 14, 17 5:33 PM
True hero. Stood up for what's fair.
By 38 (5), southampton on Sep 17, 17 11:07 AM