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Edie Windsor, Whose Lawsuit Made Same Sex Marriage the Law of the Land, Dies at 88

The woman behind the landmark ruling was a real Jewish hero

Rachel Shukert
September 13, 2017
Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

There was a particularly idiotic CNN headline from June that started floating around Twitter again recently, proclaiming “Ivanka Trump: The Most Powerful Jewish Woman in the World.” The Internet, where we all go these days to find temporary release of our constantly roiling yet impotent rage, responded with predictable ridicule, positing Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Federal Reserve Head Janet Yellen, or in my case, my own damn cat—who has her own permanent chair in our house and naps whenever she feels like it—as arguably more powerful than a woman who can’t even get her stepmother to wear a pair of pumps from her shoe line.

I would add another possible name to the list, at least until this week: Edie Windsor, the plaintiff in the landmark case before the Supreme Court that made marriage equality the law of the land in 2015. Windsor died Tuesday at a Manhattan hospital at the age of 88. If power can be gauged in terms of bravery and influence, then Windsor’s—along with Justice Ginsburg, of course, who gave hers a substantial nudge along—is immeasurable.

Born Edith Schlain in Philadelphia in 1929 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, Edie, perhaps unusually for the time, recognized her sexual orientation early, but married her brother’s best friend Saul Windsor anyway, aware of the difficulty of living openly as a lesbian at the time. Less than a year later, they divorced when Edie told her husband he “deserved better.” Shortly thereafter, she moved to New York, where, in 1963, she met Thea Spyer, her partner for more than forty years. The couple finally married in Toronto in 2007, some 30 years after Spyer was diagnosed with the degenerative multiple sclerosis that would take her life in 2009. Windsor was hit with a tax bill of more than half a million dollars on her wife’s estate, money she would be exempt from paying had she been a widow. Windsor sued the United States of America, took the case to the Supreme Court, won, and the rest, as they say, is history—except, in this case, it really was.

How brave was Edie Windsor, who is survived by her second wife, Judith Kasen-Windsor, a banking executive she married last year? Brave enough to live as a more-or-less out lesbian in the early 1960s, before any hint of LGBT rights; to lovingly nurse her wife through decades of a crippling degenerative illness; to attach her name to a lawsuit against her own federal government. How influential was Edie Windsor? So influential that millions of her fellow citizens can live openly and equally under the law, with the full civil rights ordained to them by their own Constitution, yet shamefully denied them for far too long.

How powerful was Edie Windsor? Only about as powerful as love itself.

Not bad for a nice Jewish girl from Philly.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.