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I know it’s July now, and Pride month is technically in June, however it shouldn’t be limited to just one month. I want to take a moment to talk about Edith Windsor, a computer programmer who was an important figure in the legalisation of same sex marriages…
Edith (Edie) Winsor was born Edith Schlain in 1929 in Philadelphia, to Russian Jewish immigrants. In 1950, after graduating with a master’s degree, she married Saul Windsor, a friend of her brother. The marriage lasted less than a year after Edie told Saul that she wanted to be with a woman. After the split she moved to New York, she worked for the technology giant IBM, where she became a senior systems programmer. Windsor was one of the few women at the heart of the computer programming revolution and in 1987 was honoured by the National Computing Conference as a pioneer in operating systems. In 1965, when at a restaurant, Edie met her long term partner, Thea Spyer, a psychologist and accomplished violinist. Two years later Edie proposed with a diamond pin, as a ring would have brought about unwelcome attention. This was the start of their very long engagement. The couple tried to keep a mainly low profile but they did take part in many gay and lesbian activist movements. Life for them changed when Thea was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Edie left IBM in 1977 to care for Thea, who slowly became a quadriplegic. In the 90s they registered as domestic partners as it was now possible in New York. Thea’s medical condition became terminal in 2007, the couple then travelled to Canada to get married, along with three health aides and close friends. There is actually an award winning documentary titled ‘A Very Long Engagement’ that was made about their marriage and devotion to each other. Windsor vs U.S Government In 2009, Thea Spyer died and this sparked the famous legal battle between Edie and the U.S government. Shortly after Thea died, Edie had a serious heart attack which left her in fragile health. Spyer had left her whole estate to Windsor. However, Congress had passed the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996. This meant that marriage for all federal purposes was defined as a union between a man and woman. This prohibited Windsor from the benefit of a tax exemption for surviving spouses. This meant that Edie now had a federal estate tax bill of more than $300,000. At 81 years old, in 2010, she decided to challenge this in court.
Many lawyers turned her down, but Robert Kaplan, also a Jewish lesbian, agreed to take her case. They became good friends whilst working on the case together. They had two lower court victories and the case was then accepted by the Supreme Court. Many Jewish organisations backed the case, including the Anti-defamation League, Hadassah, and the Conservative and Reform movements. Windsor won at the Supreme Court and this was a huge victory for gay marriage, and declared DOMA unconstitutional. It marked the first time that the U.S federal government recognised same sex marriage. Gay couples were now able to file joint tax returns, access social security and veteran’s benefits, keep their homes when their spouse dies and get green cards for foreign spouses. This case laid the foundations for same sex marriages to be legalised across the U.S in 2015. The Legend Edith Windsor died in 2017, and she is remembered as a pioneer and an inspiration for people to remember that it is never too late to make a difference. Edie was nominated for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year and was named as one of the Forward 50 most important Jewish people.
President Obama has said “It was a victory for families, and for the principle that all of us should be treated equally, regardless of who we are or who we love.”
McFadden, Robert. Edith Windsor, Whose Same-Sex marriage Fight Led to Landmark Ruling, Dies at 88. 2017
Dwyer, Colin. Edith Windsor, LGBTQ Advocate Who Fought The Defense of Marriage Act, Dies At 88. 2017
Socarides, Richard. The Legacy of Edith Windsor. 2017
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