NEW YORK — Edith Windsor, a gay rights pioneer whose landmark Supreme Court case struck down parts of a federal anti-gay-marriage law and paved a path toward legalizing same-sex nuptials nationwide, died Tuesday. She was 88.
Windsor died in New York, said her lawyer, Roberta Kaplan. The cause of death wasn’t given, but Windsor had struggled with heart issues for years.
Former President Barack Obama called her one of the “quiet heroes” whose persistence had furthered the cause of equality.
“Few were as small in stature as Edie Windsor – and few made as big a difference to America,” the Democrat said in a statement Tuesday, adding that he had spoken to her a few days earlier.
Windsor already was 81 when she brought a lawsuit that proved to be a turning point for gay rights. The impetus was the 2009 death of her first spouse, Thea Spyer. The women had married legally in Canada in 2007 after spending more than 40 years together.
Windsor said the federal Defense of Marriage Act’s definition of marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman prevented her from getting a marital deduction on Spyer’s estate. That meant Windsor faced a $360,000 tax bill that heterosexual couples would not have.
“It’s a very important case. It’s bigger than marriage, and I think marriage is major. I think if we win, the effect will be the beginning of the end of stigma,” she told The Associated Press in 2012, after the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
Win she did: The justices ruled 5-4 in June 2013 that the provision in the law was unconstitutional, and that legally married same-sex couples are entitled to the same federal benefits that heterosexual couples receive.
The opinion marked a key moment of encouragement for gay marriage supporters then confronting a nationwide patchwork of laws that outlawed such unions in roughly three dozen states.
It also affronted conservatives who hewed to defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Then-Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia predicted the ruling would be used to upend state restrictions on marriage and warned: “The only thing that will ‘confine’ the court’s holding is its sense of what it can get away with.”
Ultimately, the opinion in Windsor’s case became the basis for a wave of federal court rulings that struck down state marriage bans and led to a 2015 Supreme Court ruling giving same-sex couples the right to marry from coast to coast.
“One simply cannot write the history of the gay rights movement without reserving immense credit and gratitude for Edie Windsor,” said Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. He called Windsor “one of this country’s great civil rights pioneers.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said he was heartbroken by the death of a woman who “embodied the New York spirit, taking it upon herself to tear down barriers for others.”
She was a finalist for Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2013 (Pope Francis ultimately got the honor) and was invited the next year to a state dinner at the White House, honoring then-French President Francois Hollande.
Windsor herself marveled at the arc of gay rights in her lifetime.
“I grew up knowing that society thought I was inferior,” she told the AP in 2012. “Did I ever think we would be discussing equality in marriage? Never. It was just so far away.”
Born in Philadelphia, she moved to Manhattan in the early 1950s after a brief marriage to a man; it ended after she told him she was gay.
She received a master’s degree in mathematics from New York University in 1957 and went to work for IBM in senior technical and management positions.
Spyer came into her life in 1963, and they became a couple two years later. In court documents, Windsor said she told Spyer, “‘If it still feels this goofy joyous, I’d like us to spend the rest of our lives together.’ And we did.”
Concerned that an engagement ring would bring unwanted attention to Windsor’s sexual orientation, Spyer gave her a diamond brooch instead. It was, Windsor later said in court documents, “just one of many ways in which Thea and I had to mold our lives to make our relationship invisible.”
“Like countless other same-sex couples, we engaged in a constant struggle to balance our love for one another and our desire to live openly and with dignity, on the one hand, with our fear of disapproval and discrimination from others on the other,” she added.
Spyer, a psychologist, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1977. The women married in Canada when they realized they might not live long enough to see New York legalize same-sex marriage. It did in 2011.
Last year, Windsor married her current spouse, Judith Kasen-Windsor, a banker.
Standing on the Supreme Court steps after the 2013 arguments in her case, Windsor called marriage a “magic word.”
“For anybody who doesn’t understand why we want it and why we need it,” she said, “OK: It is magic.”
Story: Deepti Hajela, Jennifer Peltz