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Pioneering Gay Rights Activist Dies: Edith Windsor's Legal Legacy

By William Vogeler, Esq. on September 13, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Edith Windsor, who won a pioneering case for same-sex marriages, has died.

She was not a lawyer, but she won a case that secured her legacy in civil rights history. Two past presidents honored her after news of her passing.

"Few were as small in stature as Edie Windsor -- and few made as big a difference to America," said former President Barack Obama.

Defense of Marriage Act

Windsor, married to a woman, was the lead plaintiff in a legal challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act. The Supreme Court struck down the Act in United States v. Windsor so that gay couples could receive the same federal benefits as couples in traditional marriages.

"The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and injure those whom the state, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the 5-4 decision. "By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment."

Former President Bill Clinton, who signed DOMA into law, tweeted his regards for Windsor's efforts after learning of her death.

"In standing up for herself, Edie also stood up for millions of Americans and their rights," Clinton wrote. "May she rest in peace."

Same-Sex Marriage

Two years after the decision in Windsor's case, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that states must license marriages between two people of the same sex. Civil rights leaders said Winsor put those wheels in motion.

"The wheels of progress turn forward because of people like Edie, who are willing to stand up in the face of injustice," said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"One simply cannot write the history of the gay rights movement without reserving immense credit and gratitude for Edie Windsor."

She was 88.

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