How LGBT icon Edie Windsor changed America

Pride of America: Windsor was a computer programmer at IBM before becoming an activist. © Getty

Is history made by sudden changes, or “countless small acts of persistence”? For Barack Obama, it is the latter — and Edith “Edie” Windsor, who died on Tuesday, was the perfect example.

It was 1967 — the summer of love. Mini skirts were getting shorter; The Beatles had released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; Martin Luther King had made speeches against the Vietnam war. And Edie Windsor was driving to the Hamptons with her partner, Thea Spyer.

“What would you do if we were to become engaged?” asked Spyer.

Windsor was unsure. “I couldn’t wear a ring,” she said. Her colleagues did not know that she was dating a woman, as it was still a highly taboo subject.

When they arrived in the Hamptons, Spyer proposed anyway.

Many decades later — as Windsor was interviewed for the shortlist of 2013’s Time Person of the Year — she recalled her response. “I said ‘yes, yes, yes!’ and she was furious because I wouldn’t let her finish the sentence.”

The couple waited 40 years for their wedding in Canada in 2007. Two years later, Spyer died. At the time, America’s Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) defined marriage as between a man and a woman. This meant that Windsor did not get the same benefits as widows of straight unions, and she owed over $500,000 in taxes as a result.

She thought this was unfair, and so she sued the US government. The case ended in the Supreme Court, and in 2013, DOMA was declared unconstitutional. It paved the way for more states to legalise same-sex marriage. In 2015, the Supreme Court made it legal across the entire country.

Windsor had already spent many years as an LGBT activist, but her defeat of DOMA made her a civil rights icon. On the day of the court ruling, her lawyer compared her to Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks and Harvey Milk.

On Tuesday, Windsor died aged 88.

“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,” wrote former president Barack Obama on Facebook.

“Few were as small in stature as Edie Windsor – and few made as big a difference to America.”

Winds of change

“Is that really true?” ask some. Windsor was a wealthy woman who sued the government over a tax issue. She may have been a great person, but it is an exaggeration to say that she made as big a difference to America as people like its founders or presidents. It is these extraordinary and powerful people who make the huge decisions that shape the world we live in.

“Obama is right,” counter others. It is ordinary people’s small acts of courage which help to change minds and set the stage for presidents to finish the job. Think of Rosa Parks, the rioters at Stonewall, or the millions of people who have volunteered their time for a cause they believe in. These people change the world; and Windsor should inspire us to join them.

You Decide

  1. Is the world changed more by lots of small actions, or a few big ones?
  2. Which historic figure do you think has shaped America more than any other?

Activities

  1. In a sentence and without consulting a dictionary, explain what you think makes someone an “icon”.
  2. Make a timeline of same-sex marriage rights around the world.

Some People Say...

“We are the change that we seek.”

Barack Obama

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Windsor lived in New York City, and in 2008 New York state ruled that it would recognise same-sex marriages which took place legally elsewhere. So when Spyer (whom Windsor married) died in 2009, the state recognised that Windsor was her wife and sole heir. However, the national government did not recognise the marriage, because of DOMA. That meant she did not get the same inheritance tax exemptions as straight couples.
What do we not know?
Whether it was Windsor’s own personal story that convinced the Supreme Court to strike down DOMA for everyone. Often, activist groups use the most appealing claimants they can find to challenge laws in the Supreme Court. Windsor, as a wealthy and articulate woman with a compelling love story, was an ideal spokeswoman for LGBT couples.

Word Watch

Summer of love
The nickname for the optimistic summer of 1967, when hippies gathered in large numbers across America.
Proposed
Instead of a ring, Spyer gave Windsor a diamond brooch to symbolise the engagement.
Defence of Marriage Act
Signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996. Although some states were allowed to legalise same-sex marriage, DOMA meant that other states did not have to recognise these unions.
Supreme Court
The highest court in the USA, with the power to make the final decisions in cases which involve national laws, including the constitution.
Susan B. Anthony
A leading American suffragette, who died in 1906 and campaigned for women to have equal voting rights to men.
Rosa Parks
An early civil rights activist who sparked a bus boycott 1955.
Harvey Milk
One of America’s first openly gay politicians. He was in office (in San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors) for just 11 months, as he was assassinated in 1978.
Stonewall
The Stonewall Inn is a gay bar in New York City. In 1969 it was the site of spontaneous riots against violent police, sparking the LGBT rights movement.

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