NEW YORK — At age 83, Edith Windsor gets plenty of compliments for her courage to take on the federal government in a landmark case that has put attitudes about gay America squarely before the Supreme Court.
But the Philadelphia-born former IBM executive scoffs at how much gumption was necessary to go to court at a time when societal views of gay relationships are shifting.
‘‘The world has progressed,’’ Windsor says. ‘‘At the beginning of World War II, they really did think we had horns.’’
Windsor’s lawsuit in federal court in Manhattan is one of two that the Supreme Court agreed to take up Dec. 7 when it announced it would hear arguments over California’s ban on same-sex unions and Windsor’s dispute about federal benefits for legally married gay couples.
‘‘It’s very joyous,’’ Windsor said in an interview at her Fifth Avenue apartment in lower Manhattan. ‘‘I feel like everybody’s treating me like a hero. Everybody thinks it takes enormous courage.’’
It was a moment she could not fathom when her heart nearly gave out after the 2009 death of her spouse, Thea Clara Spyer, less than two years after their marriage in Canada.
Windsor suffered an attack of stress cardiomyopathy, also known as broken heart syndrome, that was so bad that her heart stopped.
‘‘I was ready to go. I didn’t care,’’ she recalls. ‘‘I had a wonderful life.’’
Now, she’s found new reason to live.
‘‘I keep saying, ‘Keep me alive until after the Supreme Court’ ’’ arguments in March, she said. ‘‘It’s a very important case. It’s bigger than marriage, and I think marriage is major. I think if we win, the effect will be the beginning of the end of stigma.’’
The court case was a simple set of facts. Windsor said that the federal government’s insistence in the Defense of Marriage Act that marriage can be only defined as a relationship between a man and a woman meant she was not entitled to a marital deduction on Spyer’s estate.
That meant, she said, that she owed $363,053 in taxes that she would not have to pay if the law did not unconstitutionally discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
In the early 1950s, she moved to New York City from Philadelphia and got a master’s degree in mathematics from New York University in 1957. She then joined IBM and worked 16 years in senior technical and management positions.
In 1963, she met Spyer at a Greenwich Village restaurant known for its friendly attitude toward lesbians. It was not until the spring of 1965 that they got together. Windsor suggested they date for a year and consider engagement for another year if that went well.
And, as she said in an affidavit in her court case, Windsor told Spyer: “ ‘And if it still feels this goofy joyous, I'd like us to spend the rest of our lives together.’ And we did.’’
The engagement lasted for 40 years.
Spyer, worried an engagement ring would unintentionally reveal Windsor’s sexual orientation to her IBM colleagues, gave her a circular diamond brooch she wears to this day.
‘‘Our choice not to wear traditional engagement rings was just one of many ways in which Thea and I had to mold our lives to make our relationship invisible,’’ Windsor said in her affidavit.
‘‘We both faced pressures not only in the workplace and in society at large, but also from family and friends,’’ she added. ‘‘Like countless other same-sex couples, we engaged in a constant struggle to balance our love for one another and our desire to live openly and with dignity, on the one hand, with our fear of disapproval and discrimination from others on the other.’’
In 1968, Spyer, a psychologist, and Windsor bought a small house together on New York’s Long Island and traveled frequently.
They hosted parties where Spyer displayed her culinary skills and grew ever closer, a bond that was tested repeatedly after Spyer was diagnosed in 1977 with multiple sclerosis at age 45.
Spyer went from using a cane to crutches to a manual wheelchair and eventually to a motorized wheelchair she operated with one functioning hand. When Spyer could no longer swim, Windsor held up her body in the water so she could feel the water and splash.
Windsor, who had heart trouble, said they went to Toronto to marry when they realized they might not live long enough to wait for New York to approve same-sex marriages.