Civil rights legend Edith Windsor passed away at the age of 88 in New York on Tuesday. Windsor was the plaintiff in the U.S. Supreme Court case Windsor v. United States – which effectively struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and paved the way for nationwide marriage equality in 2015.
Born on June 20, 1929 to James and Celia Schlain in Pennsylvania, Edie was a lifelong trailblazer for the LGBTQ community. She was one of the first donors to The Center’s (New York’s LGBTQ community center) campaign to purchase their building on West 13 Street in 1983, and famously refused their repayment check to avoid being outed to her bank manager. With degrees from Temple University and New York University, Edie pursued a career at IBM for 16 years. After leaving, she dedicated herself to numerous LGBT organizations, including The Center, SAGE, Hetrick-Martin Institute, and Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, among many others.
The Center’s Executive Director Glennda Testone remembered, “At The Center, Edie volunteered over a span of more than 30 years. She donated her time and coding expertise to modernize our technology systems and infrastructure, and in May 1985, she helped organize our first women’s dance. It was there that Edie and her future wife, Dr. Thea Spyer, danced to the disco version of “If You Could See Me Now” alongside 300 other women. That is how many of us will always envision her, dancing, laughing and enjoying life in a way that only she could, with impeccable style and grace. Her life’s work and legacy are inextricably intertwined with our work and for that we will always be grateful.”
Testone added, “With Edie’s passing, she leaves behind a legacy that will long-serve to inspire and empower us to demand equality. But perhaps most poignant is the legacy Edie leaves of love and dignity, demonstrated by Edie and Thea’s 42 year engagement. Thea famously proposed to Edie in 1967 with a circular diamond brooch, rather than a ring, to avoid questions at Edie’s work about the engagement, particularly assumptions about the intended husband. Edie and Thea were finally married in Toronto, Canada on May 22, 2007. When Thea passed away in 2009, Edie held her memorial at The Center. The room was filled to the gills as they celebrated Thea’s life, culminating with the Big Apple Marching Band’s performance of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
“Our community has lost a giant today,” read a statement by Equality New York. “Edie Windsor’s tenacious and tireless fight to ensure all LGBT Americans had the right to marry who they love will go down in history as a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights movement. We have always felt a certain pride that she was a New Yorker, representing the best of what this city and this state stand for.”
The statement continued, “Edie was a constant bright light, standing by LGBT people in every fight from the fight for adoption rights, to conversion therapy and more. Edie’s life was a story of hard work, intellectual rigor, resistance, commitment, and love. For decades, Edie worked tirelessly to build our movement. Right here in New York, her support of Hetrick-Martin Institute, Sage, and The LGBT Community Center, among others, and numerous political efforts, made her a central figure. In recent years, her focus on LGBTQI youth brought her to rooms of educators and young people, engaging and energizing them with her enthusiasm, hope, and commitment.”
And perhaps they summed it up perfectly when they said, “We will never have another Edie in our community, but, her spirit will live on in the millions she inspired to continue the fight. In Edie’s honor, we will continue to stand united until every LGBTQ person in this country is 100% equal under the eyes of the law. Rest in power, Edie.”
PFLAG National, the nation’s largest and oldest organization uniting families and allies with people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer, shared: “We’ve lost a lesbian national treasure, someone who committed to love and never stopped pushing for change and justice. Edie had such joy for life, and gave our community so much. I hope she felt our love for her, and that we gave back to her in the same way she gave to all of us.”
Sarah Kate Ellis, President and CEO of GLAAD, said, “Edie Windsor is a legend who changed the course of history for the better. She touched countless lives, and we at GLAAD are deeply saddened by her passing, but her kindness, compassion, and legacy will endure.”
LGBTQ advocates and organizations are planned a vigil for Edie outside of the Stonewall Inn in New York City on the night of her death. More than 300 people attended. Photos below were shared with The Seattle Lesbian by Cathy Renna, Edie’s friend and colleague.
Edie leaves behind her wife Judith Kasen-Windsor.
PFLAG National Executive Director Jaime M. Grant, Ph.D. shared: “We’ve lost a lesbian national treasure, someone who committed to love and never stopped pushing for change and justice. Edie had such joy for life, and gave our community so much. I hope she felt our love for her, and that we gave back to her in the same way she gave to all of us.”
Rea Carey, Executive Director, National LGBTQ Task Force said: “The Task Force family and I are deeply saddened to hear about Edie’s death. Whether enthusiastically attending our Creating Change conference, receiving our Leadership Award, leafing through the history of the LGBTQ movement in her apartment, showing up at protests or sharing a meal and talking over the politics of the day, Edie was an activist through and through. Smart, funny and always engaging, upon receiving the Task Force’s Lifetime Leadership Award in 2013, Edie proudly whipped out her original Task Force membership card and a folder of priceless Task Force documents. I, and we, learned a lot from her and will miss her. Edie changed the landscape of what same-sex couples thought was possible and she forever changed this country. My heart goes out to Judith and all who loved, learned from and were inspired by Edie.”
Susan Sommer, Lambda Legal’s Director of Constitutional Litigation, said: “Our hearts are with Edie’s wife, Judith Kasen-Windsor, their family, friends and all whose lives were changed because Edie so fearlessly stood up for herself and her community. She called for the respect and dignity denied to same-sex spouses, and the Supreme Court heard her plea. Because of Edie, we are a more perfect union. She left an indelible mark on all who knew her story, and all whose love is now recognized and protected because of the victory she helped secure for LGBT people. Thank you Edie. You will be remembered with deep respect and gratitude. We will miss you.”
Kasey Suffredini, acting CEO and President of Strategy at Freedom for All Americans, said: “This is a sad day for LGBTQ Americans. Edith Windsor was a courageous advocate whose fight for equality and justice granted important legal rights to same-sex couples. While she can never be replaced, she has made an indelible mark on our nation’s history, ensuring that loving and committed same-sex couples are treated fairly in the eyes of the law. While we are sad to say goodbye, her legacy will continue to inspire and guide our efforts to ensure LGBTQ Americans are protected equally under the law.”
Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund Executive Director Jillian Weiss shared, “Today we have lost a giant in the LGBTQ rights movement. Edie Windsor’s fight for justice helped bring marriage equality to thousands of loving and committed same-sex couples, including transgender couples, who just wanted the same opportunity to take care of and be responsible for one another. Edie’s decades-long devotion to her late wife, Thea Spyer, moved and inspired us all. Her fight to overturn DOMA transformed her from an everyday hero to one of the most visible and admired LGBTQ rights figures in history. In 2014, TLDEF honored Ms. Windsor at our 9th Anniversary Benefit for her tireless activism on behalf of us all. Today we mourn her loss and we thank her for making a monumental contribution to LGBTQ equality. We also send our deepest condolences to Edie’s wife, Judith Kasen-Windsor, whom she married in 2016.”
A Message from Her President
President Barack Obama offered his sentiments as well. Full text is below.
America’s long journey towards 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.
Few were as small in stature as Edie Windsor – and few made as big a difference to America.
I had the privilege to speak with Edie a few days ago, and to tell her one more time what a difference she made to this country we love. She was engaged to her partner, Thea, for forty years. After a wedding in Canada, they were married for less than two. But federal law didn’t recognize a marriage like theirs as valid – which meant that they were denied certain federal rights and benefits that other married couples enjoyed. And when Thea passed away, Edie spoke up – not for special treatment, but for equal treatment – so that other legally married same-sex couples could enjoy the same federal rights and benefits as anyone else.
In my second inaugural address, I said that if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. And because people like Edie stood up, my administration stopped defending the so-called Defense of Marriage Act in the courts. The day that the Supreme Court issued its 2013 ruling in United States v. Windsor was a great day for Edie, and a great day for America – a victory for human decency, equality, freedom, and justice. And I called Edie that day to congratulate her.
Two years later, to the day, we took another step forward on our journey as the Supreme Court recognized a Constitutional guarantee of marriage equality. 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.
I thought about Edie that day. I thought about all the millions of quiet heroes across the decades whose countless small acts of courage slowly made an entire country realize that love is love – and who, in the process, made us all more free. They deserve our gratitude. And so does Edie.
Michelle and I offer our condolences to her wife, Judith, and to all who loved and looked up to Edie Windsor.
Edie’s funeral service will be live streamed on Friday, 12:30 PM ET. The shiva will be private. Temple Emanu-El’s services stream live to Facebook as well. Viewers also may watch live or view archives on Roku. Search for and add StreamSpot Channel, look for Congregation Emanu-El.
Images from her memorial held Tuesday night are available here courtesy of Cathy Renna.