Edie Windsor: A trailblazer who helped legalize same-sex marriage
Recognized as a top programmer at IBM when there were few female programmers at all, Edie Windsor is even better known as an iconic LGBTQ+ activist.
When it comes to LGBTQ+ pioneers in the tech industry, the name Edie Windsor will always be one of the first mentioned. She was one of the few women at the forefront of the computer programming revolution. She also emerged as a pioneer in the field of operating systems. While at the beginning of her career she was forced to hide her sexuality, she later became a leading activist who was instrumental in securing a landmark Supreme Court decision regarding same-sex marriage. This is a peek into the incredible life of Edie Windsor.
Edith Schlain was born in 1929 to Jewish Russian immigrant parents. Despite experiencing poverty during the Depression like many others, her parents ensured that Edie and her siblings received a good education. Edie was a star pupil, and in 1946, she enrolled at Temple University.
By this time, she had become aware of her sexuality. Afraid of attempting to live life as a lesbian during a time when that was incredibly taboo, however, she got engaged to her brother’s best friend Saul Wiener. She briefly broke off the engagement after falling in love with a female classmate, but the fear of society's repercussions saw her reconcile with Wiener, and they married in 1950. The couple also changed their name to “Windsor” soon after—one can imagine the type of identity turmoil Edie experienced at this time. But living the lie of a heterosexual marriage proved impossible, and they divorced less than a year later. As she later explained to The New York Times: “Finally, I said, ‘Honey, you deserve more. You deserve someone who feels you’re the most desirable person, and I need something else.’ And I was right. He married the right girl and had a lovely life.”
A talented computer programmer
She then moved to New York where she found a secretarial job. Her sights were set on something more technical, though, and in 1957 she earned a master’s degree in applied mathematics. Luckily for the computing world, programming captured her heart. At one point, she performed data entry for the UNIVAC I computer at NYU’s U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. This was the same machine that helped build public fascination with computers by correctly predicting Eisenhower’s landslide victory in the presidential election of 1952.
Edie was hired by IBM in 1958 as a mainframe programmer. Ten years later, she would achieve the highest level technical position at IBM: senior systems programmer. In her 16 years with the company, she was recognized as one of its premier programmers, as well as for her superior debugging skills. Leaving IBM in the mid-’70s, she founded the consulting firm PC Classics which specialized in software development projects.
While her career looked to be firing on all cylinders, Edie Windsor’s personal life was far more challenging. While she hoped her move to New York would allow her to meet more queer people, she constantly lived in fear of her sexuality being discovered. However, one night in 1963 at Portofino—a Greenwich Village restaurant that discretely hosted a lesbian meet-up on Friday nights—she met Dr. Thea Spyer. Although the two immediately hit it off, they did not begin dating until two years later.
Still, the reality of the times forced the couple to keep their relationship a secret. Even when they became engaged in 1967, Thea proposed using a diamond brooch since an engagement ring would invite too many questions. And while gradually the relationship would be plain to see for anyone in their circle—they shared both an apartment and a vacation home and routinely took trips together—Windsor remained reticent about being truly “out.” This changed when, after the couple returned from a 1969 trip, they learned about the Stonewall Inn riot. In an interview with NYU Alumni Magazine, Edie admitted: “Until then I’d always had the feeling—and I know it’s ignorant and unfair—‘I don’t want to be identified with the queens.’ But from that day on, I had this incredible gratitude. They changed my life. They changed my life forever.”
And thus began decades of invaluable work by one of the community’s most treasured activists. She and Thea participated in countless marches and parades, and soon Edie was doing work “for just about every gay organization that existed then or was being formed.” She even helped found an improv group that tackled all types of bigotry. But while her life as an activist flourished, she faced yet another challenge in her personal life.
In the late ’70s, Thea was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. This was in fact the main reason Edie retired from IBM before she was 50—to support her partner and eventually become her full-time caretaker as the disease made Thea a quadriplegic. Their love never faltered, however, and in 1993 when New York opened a domestic partner registry, the couple was 80th in line. Still, marriage was not in the cards. Despite Edie’s and other activists’ best efforts, same-sex marriage remained unrecognized in the U.S. So when in 2007 doctors said Thea had only a year to live, the couple traveled to Toronto and were married there. Dr. Thea Spyer died in 2009.
The birth of an activist
It was the aftermath of Thea’s passing that resulted in arguably Edie’s most important work as an activist. After 40 years of partnership, Thea had unsurprisingly left Edie her estate. Because same-sex couples were not given the rights of a legal spouse due to the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 (DOMA), the IRS denied Windsor the unlimited exemption from federal estate taxes that heterosexual couples receive. As a result, she was taxed $363,053. Thankfully for same-sex couples across the nation then and now, Edie Windsor was having none of it.
She fought the law (and the law lost)
Edie sued the federal government, arguing that refusing to recognize same-sex marriages singled those couples out for differential treatment. In 2013, the Supreme Court agreed and overturned the law. While this only ensured benefits for couples in the 13 states that recognized same-sex unions (plus Washington, D.C.), it was an incredibly important step. On June 26, 2015, same-sex marriage was constitutionally guaranteed across the United States.
Remembering a true trailblazer
Just over one year later, Edie Windsor married her partner Judith Kasen. On September 12, 2017, Windsor passed away at the age of 88. However, her legacy lives on, and she will be remembered as one of history’s foremost gay rights activists.