Top Five

Edith Windsor

By Naomi Zeveloff

The Forward 50 is our annual look at the American Jews who made a difference in the past year. Each day, we will spotlight one of our Top 5 picks, leading up to Sunday night when the entire package — along with some very special surprises — will go live.

Who would have predicted that one of America’s most crucial battles for gay and lesbian rights would be won by an 84-year-old bottle blond Jew?

On June 26, Edith Windsor won her suit at the Supreme Court, a decision that struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Windsor, who lives in New York City’s Greenwich Village, married her longtime partner, Thea Spyer, in 2007 in Toronto. When Spyer died in 2009, she left her estate to Windsor. Because of DOMA, Windsor was prohibited from the benefit of a tax exemption for surviving spouses, and she was compelled to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax on Spyer’s estate.

In 2010, with the help of her lawyer, Roberta Kaplan, also a Jewish lesbian, she filed suit to recoup her money.

According to Ariel Levy’s profile of Windsor in The New Yorker, Kaplan saw her client as the ideal plaintiff to defeat DOMA. A feminine octogenarian whose lifelong partner was deceased was unlikely to be painted as a political radical in the press. Windsor was the “perfect wife,” taking care of Spyer for decades after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1977.

Windsor and Spyer’s relationship was much more than that of caretaker and patient. Over their four decades together, the two women traveled internationally — to Suriname, St. Thomas, Venice and elsewhere. Though Kaplan advised Windsor not to speak publicly about her sex life because of how it might affect the case, sex was an essential part of Windsor and Spyer’s romance, even after Spyer grew increasingly immobile because of her MS.

Spyer and Windsor were both Jewish, but they came from strikingly different backgrounds. Spyer, a psychologist, was born in Amsterdam. Her family made a fortune in the pickle business and escaped Holland before the Nazi invasion. Windsor, on the other hand, grew up in a family of modest means in Philadelphia. A graduate of Temple University, she married her brother’s best friend but divorced him less than a year after the wedding. (She kept his last name; her maiden name was Schlain.) At 23, Windsor moved to New York City to pursue a master’s degree in mathematics at New York University. She later became one of the first female senior systems programmers at IBM.

In 1967, two years before the Stonewall riots galvanized the gay rights movement, Spyer proposed to Windsor. So as not to arouse suspicion among Windsor’s co-workers, who didn’t know about her sexual orientation, Spyer giving her a round diamond pin instead of an engagement ring. Four decades later, the two finally wed.

As the case made its way to the Supreme Court, Windsor became a celebrity in the marriage equality movement. She served as the grand marshal of the New York City Gay Pride Parade just seven days after the ruling. Windsor was also a hero to many in the Jewish community: The Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary filed the first amicus brief in its history in favor of Windsor’s plea.

Kaplan told the Forward that Windsor shared many Jewish holidays with her family over the years that the pair worked on the case. She also spoke about Windsor at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, Manhattan’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender synagogue:

“I think the best way for me to sum up this historic Pride Shabbat in the year 5773 is with Edie’s own words on the steps of the Supreme Court when she was asked to explain why such dramatic change has taken place: ‘I think what happened is, at some point, somebody came out and said, “I’m gay.” And this gave other people the guts to do it.’” Her words echoed those of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel when he wrote, “All it takes is one person… and another… and another… and another… to start a movement.”

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.