Edie Schlain Windsor and same sex marriage

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

US Supreme court building
Image by Mark Thomas from Pixabay
Image by Mark Thomas from Pixabay

Edie Schlain Windsor was a senior systems programmer at IBM. There is more to life than computing though. Just like anyone else, Computer Scientists can do massively important things aside from being very good at computing. Civil rights and over-turning unjust laws are as important as anything. She led the landmark Supreme Court Case (United States versus Windsor) that was a milestone for the rights of same-sex couples in the US.

Born to a Jewish immigrant family, Edie worked her way up from an early data entry job at New York University to ultimately become a senior programmer at IBM and then President of her own software consultancy where she helped LGBTQ+ organisations become computerised.

Having already worked as a programmer at an energy company called Combustion Engineering, she joined IBM on completing her degree in 1958 so was one of the early generation of female programmers, before the later idea of the male programmer stereotype took hold. Within ten years she had been promoted to the highest technical position in IBM, that of a Senior Systems Programmer: so one of their top programmers lauded as a wizard debugger. She had started out programming mainframe computers, the room size computers that were IBM ‘s core business at the time. They both designed and built the computers as well as the operating system and other software that ran on them. Edie became an operating systems expert, and a pioneer computer scientist also working on natural language processing programs, aiming to improve the interactivity of computes. Natural Language Processing was then a nascent area but that by 2011 IBM led spectacularly with its program Watson winning the quiz show Jeopardy! answering general knowledge questions playing against human champions.

Before her Supreme Court case overturned it, a law introduced in 1996 banned US federal recognition of same-sex marriages. It made it federal law that marriage could only exist between a man and a woman. Individual states in the US had introduced same-sex marriage but this new law meant that such marriages were not recognised in general in the US. Importantly, for those involved it meant a whole raft of benefits including tax, immigration and healthcare benefits that came with marriage were denied to same-sex couples.

Edie had fallen in love with psychologist Thea Spyer in 1965, and two years later they became engaged, but actually getting married was still illegal. They had to wait almost 30 years before they were even allowed to make their partnership legal, though still at that point not marry. They were the 80th couple to register on the day such partnerships were finally allowed. By this time Thea had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease that gradually leads to the central nervous system breaking down, with movement becoming ever harder. Edie was looking after her as a full time carer, having given up her career to do so. They both loved dancing and did so throughout their life together even once Thea was struggling to walk, using sticks to get on to the dance floor and later dancing in a wheelchair. As Thea’s condition grew worse it became clear she had little time to live. Marriage was still illegal in New York, however, so before it was too late, they travelled to Canada and married there instead.

When Thea died she left everything to Edie in her will. Had Edie been a man married to Thea, she would not have been required to pay tax on this inheritance, but as a woman and because same-sex marriages were deemed illegal she was handed a tax bill of hundreds of thousands of dollars. She sued the government claiming the way different couples were treated was unfair. The case went all the way to the highest court, the Supreme Court, who ruled that the 1996 law was itself unlawful. Laws in the US have as foundation a written constitution that dates back to 1789. The creation of the constitution was a key part of the founding of the United States of America itself. Without it, the union could easily have fallen apart, and as such is the ultimate law of the land that new laws cannot overturn. The problem with the law banning same sex marriage was that it broke the 5th amendment of the constitution added in 1791, one of several amendments made to ensure people’s rights and justice was protected by the constitution.

The Supreme Court decision was far more seismic than just refunding a tax bill, however. It overturned the law that actively banned same-sex marriage, as it fell foul of the constitution, and this paved the way for such marriages to be made actively legal. In 2014 federal employees were finally told they should perform same-sex marriages across the US, and those marriages gave the couple all the same rights as mixed-sex marriages. Because Edie took on the government, the US constitution, and so justice for many, many couples prevailed.

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This blog is funded through EPSRC grant EP/W033615/1.

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