How Edith Windsor Became a ‘Matriarch of the Gay-Rights Movement’

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For most of her life, Edith Windsor was a private citizen who, like most Americans, had a name that — while meaningful to those in her circle of friends and family — was largely unknown to the wider world. But a late-in-life decision ensured that the LGBTQ activist, who died on Tuesday at 88, as her wife Judith Kasen-Windsor confirmed, would find her name a solid part of American history.

After all, it’s her name in the 2013 Supreme Court case United States v. Windsor, which overturned key parts of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

“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,” former President Barack Obama said in a statement about Windsor’s death. “Few were as small in stature as Edie Windsor – and few made as big a difference to America.”

The Windsor decision said that, in 13 states and the District of Columbia, which recognized same-sex marriage, such couples were entitled to the same federal benefits offered to their heterosexual counterparts. (On the wider question of whether marriage equality is a constitutional right, the Supreme Court ruled that it is in 2015, and that same-sex marriages must be recognized in all states.)

In 2013, in the wake of that decision, TIME named her a finalist for Person of the Year, describing her as “the matriarch of the gay-rights movement.” Here’s how the magazine described her rise to prominence, which started when her first wife Thea Spyer died in 2009:

Windsor’s judicial odyssey began in 2010, when she sued the government for a $363,053 refund of the estate taxes she had to pay when her spouse died. Under the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law passed in 1996, the couple’s legal marriage in Canada in 2007 didn’t qualify them for any federal protections, including the estate-tax exemption for surviving spouses. When the Supreme Court decided 5-4 in Windsor’s favor on June 26, it declared DOMA—which excluded gay married couples from some 1,100 federal provisions, like filing joint tax returns and accessing veterans’ benefits— unconstitutional. The decision marked the first time the U.S. recognized marriage between partners of the same sex. It was a big win.

Windsor now finds herself transformed into an icon of the gay-rights movement. She wears the mantle well. Feisty, funny and extroverted, Windsor has been, at different points in her life, a leader. At 13 she was elected vice president of her eighth-grade class. In the 1960s and early ’70s, after developing a precocious expertise in computer programming at IBM, she managed (at times reluctant) men. The homes she shared with Spyer in New York City and the Hamptons were salons for many people in the gay and lesbian community. The couple’s love and tenacity “empowered the rest of us as we were coming up,” says historian and friend Blanche Wiesen Cook.

As part of the feature, Windsor shared with TIME photo albums of her first marriage in her Greenwich Village apartment.

“I think the truth is that if you really care about the quality of somebody’s life as much as you care about the quality of your own,” she said, “you have it made.”

Read the full profile of Windsor in TIME’s 2013 Person of the Year issue: Edith Windsor, the Unlikely Activist

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