Edie Windsor, who passed away last week at eighty eight will be remembered as many things— a hero, an icon, a trailblazer, and also rarely emphasized, Jewish. Yes, the same Edie Windsor who led the fight in overturning the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) at the Supreme Court in 2013 was very much a Jew. Her case left a profound impact on history, culture, and law and was instrumental in achieving nationwide marriage equality in 2015.
When we think of American Jewish icons it’s often of artists and entertainers— Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld, Steven Spielberg and Simon and Garfunkel come to mind— and as seen here, they’re almost always men. What makes Edie Windsor’s legacy all the more important is that she is none of these things and yet she has made one of the most lasting impacts on American history. Her name will be immortalized among the great civil rights heroes for her contributions to American society. She shattered the stain glass ceiling in American politics, creating a pathway for LGBT equality like never before. It was Edie’s case which motivated President Obama to change his position on DOMA in 2011 and later marriage equality in 2012. This is more than just incremental legal change. Her activism transformed the consciousness of the country from one of moral disapproval to moral understanding that gay people are no different from any other American. In 1996, the year DOMA was signed into law only 27% of Americans were in favor of marriage equality. Today, that support is at 64%. This is proof that activism works and that laws that discriminate against minorities pathologize a sense of rejection in greater society. Conversely, uprooting these laws has the power to create dramatic acceptance.
For those of us in the LGBT community we found a hero in Edie. She became our Rosa Parks– a crusader in dismantling discrimination in the law. In many ways, there was no truer symbol of American patriotism in the last decade than Edie. The founding of this country was based on the premise of unfair taxation by an oppressive government. This too was the crux of what animated Edie’s suit. She was forced to pay more than $360,000 in federal estate tax after her spouse and partner of 44 years, Thea Spyer died, a bill she would not have incurred had “Thea been Theo.”
Though the Jewish element often gets lost in her story, it is crucial to understanding her life. When Edie grew up, being Jewish was not perceived the same way it is today. Unlike now, where Jews have achieved extraordinary levels of success and prominence, Jews of her time were mostly impoverished first or second generation immigrants who escaped persecution in Europe in the form of pogroms and boycotts on Jewish businesses. Thea Spyer’s family (also Jewish) had fled Amsterdam prior to World War II and Edie’s family left Russia only to be met with financial woes during the Great Depression. On top of this, Jews were often lumped in the same column of undesirables with Blacks and most certainly homosexuals. To be a gay Jew could be seen as a double hex of rejection and malign. And to be a woman on top of all that only sealed one’s fate of walking the tightrope in a world of adversity.
Perhaps the most remarkable feat of all is that Edie Windsor pulled off this challenge with flying colors. She lived a more fulfilling and robust life than most people of her time ever would. She achieved astonishing success in tech, traveled the world and was deeply in love. It takes a special kind of person to achieve all that given the adversity and backwards mindset of the time. We’re living in an age where a Google software engineer still questions women’s capability to serve in leadership roles. This is more than fifty years since Edie held the highest technical position at IBM. Perhaps he should look her up.
In addition to the pervasive sexism of the time, when Edie rose to prominence at IBM being gay was a criminal offense and was considered a mental illness. This is all the more remarkable considering that her partner, Thea Spyer was a clinical psychologist. To have the inner conviction in oneself at that time was in itself a revolutionary act. Inherent in Jewish philosophy is a sense of social justice, or tikkun olam, so perhaps it’s no coincidence that the person to challenge the marriage laws in this country was no other than a Jewish woman. Flash forward to 2013, and it’s near poetic justice that Windsor’s supreme court fight was led by another strong-willed Jewish lesbian.
Her attorney, Robbie Kaplan knew that Edie made the perfect plaintiff to defeat DOMA. Despite the major LGBT organizations’ resistance, She knew if marriage equality could be achieved, all other forms of discrimination would collapse like dominos. DOMA had branded gays as inferior, but defeating the law
would mean gays would achieve a different status and be seen as equal in other facets of life. Putting the spotlight on one person was seen as an unusual move at the time, but Kaplan knew it had the potential to create a spokesperson and cultural icon out of Edie. What she ultimately created was a civil rights legend. Edie supplied the emotional power behind the legal arguments; if people got to know her they couldn’t possibly deny her story.
Early on in the filing of the case, Kaplan was told relentlessly that it was the wrong time for the movement. But as we all know now, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. With Trump’s appointment of conservative justices it’s unlikely the battle for equal marriage ever could have been won in the high court. We owe everything to Edie and Robbie— the feisty, tenacious, irrepressible, ass-kicking Jewish lesbians who took the fight of the century into their own hands.
Edie’s journey to the Supreme Court was also layered with a unique Jewish symbolism. There was the fact that her court cases coincided with major Jewish holidays— her Second Circuit Court of Appeals case landed the day after Yom Kippur (the day of atonement), and the Supreme Court case fell in the middle of Passover (a story of liberation). And now with her death, it’s landed during Elul, the month leading up to the the High Holy Days, serving as a time of self-reflection and renewal. It was only fitting that among Edie’s eulogizers last Friday at Temple Emanu-el was no other than Hillary Clinton. The symbolism was not lost on anyone that the wife of the President who signed DOMA into law was now speaking high praise of the woman who dismantled its very being. With her moving eulogy, it was a form of divine justice come full circle, making amends for past errors. As Clinton said of Edie, “She helped to change hearts and minds, including mine.
This past spring I was lucky to finally meet Edie at Capital Pride’s rooftop brunch, a few weeks prior to her 88th birthday. It was a meeting that had been arranged by her second wife and surviving spouse, Judith Kasen-Windsor, who through pure luck discovered an Instagram post I made in honor of the fourth anniversary of oral arguments in US v Windsor. We had become somewhat of social media “pen pals” in the ensuing months and I was thrilled she had agreed to make my dream come true. This was a meeting I had dreamed of for years and to say I was euphoric would be a massive understatement. Meeting Edie was like coming in contact with a guardian angel. No single national figure had transformed my life more dramatically than Edie, so this was quite an honor to say the least. There was also something I was desperate to ask her.
For years I had known that my grandfather worked his entire career at IBM and worked on the landmark COBOL compiler, one of the first computers that took up the size of a city block. He died a year before her Supreme Court case, and ever since I had wondered if he and Edie knew each other, being that they were roughly the same age at the same company in the same city in the same building with the same job in the same department. Meeting Edie finally brought closure to that mystery. When I showed her an old picture of him her mouth dropped. Not only did she know him, but she was his boss! I’ll always remember these words she told me. I asked if it was hard living during the mid-20th century and she said, ‘No, it wasn’t hard because I was in love.’ That’s just the kind of person she was, celebrating every moment of life with pride.
When I think of all the historical figures that people look up to, no one makes me prouder than Edie Windsor. She exemplified the best of what it means to be Jewish and what it means to be gay.
Some people are so iconic they’re remembered by their first name. There’s Martin, there’s Rosa, there’s Harvey, and now there’s Edie.
It’s up to us to preserve her legacy to inspire future generations of freedom fighters and LGBT advocates. She will be missed but she will never be forgotten. May her memory be a blessing. L’dor vador.