The Little Engine Who Could: Edie Windsor


The Woman Who Sued the United States and Won!

“I think I can, I think I can” must have been Windsor’s motto as she led an uphill battle that lasted five years, and culminated in a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down the federal law DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) that regarded marriage as a union only between a man and a woman.  But in terms of her strength,  Edie Windsor’s  impact on gay rights in the U.S. was  (like Superman) “as strong as a locomotive.”

Auspicious Beginnings

Edith Schlain was born eighty-four years ago in Philadelphia.  She briefly married a man, divorced , and moved to New York City “to be gay.” A math and computer whiz, Edie worked at I.B.M.., one of the few women at the heart of the revolution in programming.  She was closeted at that time, but did ask a friend “if you know where the lesbians go, please take me.”

The First Meeting

On Friday evenings, Portofino in the West Village was a hangout for gay women.  It was here that she met Thea Spyer, a wealthy Jewish emigre from Holland, who was a psychologist and violinist in 1963.  Four years later, they began what turned out to be “ a very long engagement”( the title of a documentary about Edie and Thea).

Sickness Enters Equation

In 1977, Spyer was found to have multiple sclerosis.  Edie quit her job to care for Spyer.  At that time, Edie became a gay activist, financial donor, and was drafted to design and manage computer systems for gay groups.

Because of the severity of Spyer’s illness, Edith and Thea went to Toronto to wed in May 2007 ( New York did not have legalized gay married until 2011).  Thea died on February 5, 2009. They were a couple for forty-four years!

Edith Taxed Unfairly

Because the federal government did not recognize the couple’s marriage, Edie could not receive federal benefits, according to DOMA. She was saddled with $363,053 in federal estate taxes and more than $600,000 overall because the government did not recognize her as Spyer’s spouse who could inherit the modest cottage in the Hamptons and couple’s Fifth Avenue apartment, tax free.

Windsor sued the federal government Windsor v. United States for failing to recognize her marriage to her partner after Spyer’s death in 2009.  In her lawsuit, Windsor argued that DOMA violates the equal protection guarantee of the U.S. Constitution because it requires the government to treat same-sex couples who are legally married as strangers.

Challenging Laws:  Through The Maze of Courts

Windsor’s lawsuit was filed by the law firm of Paul Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP,, the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Civil Liberties Union.

In October 2012, in a 2 to -1 ruling, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York ruled in her favor: that DOMA unconstitutionally discriminates against married same-sex couples.

On December 7, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that the justices would be hearing Windsor’s challenge to the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act as well as a challenge to California’s Proposition 8 marriage amendment. 

During this past March, the U.S. Supreme Court heard gay marriage arguments. On Wednesday, June 26, they finally came to a conclusion.

Supreme Court Delivers Victory to Windsor

In a 5-to-4 ruling, U.S. Supreme Court justices, with Anthony Kennedy as the “swing vote,” said that DOMA is unconstitutional because it is deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment.  Same-sex couples who are legally married must now be treated the same as married opposite-sex couples and be entitled to benefits including income taxes, social security benefits and over a thousand other federal laws and programs – same as heterosexual couples. (See Gay Agenda’s Post “Supreme Court Delivers Gay Marriage Victory,” Gay Agenda, 26/6/13.)

Edie never lost sight of what was fair not only for herself, but for other gay couples who have been denied their benefits in states where same-sex marriage is legal.  Because of this hero’s tenacity, a bill known as the Respect for Marriage Act is working its way through Congress to supplant DOMA.




One thought on “The Little Engine Who Could: Edie Windsor

  • July 1, 2013 at 8:21 pm

    But will she ever see her money? The IRS is dragging its feet.

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