Remembering Edith Windsor: Tech Pioneer, Equality Advocate

Remembering Edith Windsor: Tech Pioneer, Equality Advocate

Most people know Edith “Edie” Windsor as the stylish, silver-haired plaintiff in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that stuck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, opening the doors for nationwide marriage equality. But not many people outside the industry know that Edith was also a pioneering technologist, a female leader at a major computing corporation at a time when few women were even entering the field.

Edith earned her bachelor’s degree from Temple University in 1950, followed by a master’s degree in mathematics from New York University in 1957, and post-graduate studies in applied math at Harvard University. While attending New York University, she worked for the university’s math department, entering data into its UNIVAC. She worked for 16 years at IBM, starting as a mainframe programmer and later rising to the company’s highest technical rank, Senior Systems Programmer, on the strength of her top-notch debugging skills.

“They couldn’t fix the code because they couldn’t read it,” Edith told a journalist. “But I could read code until it wrapped around the room and back again. A guy I was working with said, ‘give this woman a roll of toilet paper, she can do anything.”

Edith left IBM in 1975, becoming the founding president of PC Classics, a consulting firm specializing in major software development projects. During this time, Edith also helped countless LGBTQ groups become tech literate. “I computerized everybody,” she quipped. “I got calls from gay organizations that wanted to computerize their mail systems. All of my IBM experience continues throughout my life.” Her love of computing was personal, too — she was the owner of the very first IBM-PC delivered in New York City.

Edith was beloved by the tech community, and the feeling was mutual. “If you have to outlive a great love,” said Edith, “I can’t think of a better way to do it than being everybody’s hero.” In 2016, Lesbians Who Tech launched the Edie Windsor Coding Scholarship Fund, which funds coding-school tuition for queer and gender-nonconforming women, and provides them with mentorship and other support systems.

Edith was recognized by the National Computing Conference as an operating systems pioneer. In 2013, she was the Grand Marshal of the New York City LGBT Pride March and a runner-up for Time’s Person of the Year — losing out to to Pope Francis.

Edith passed away on September 12, 2017, at the age of 88. At her funeral, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton delivered a moving eulogy that was shared around the world on social media. Former President Barack Obama reflected on her passing: “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,” he said. “Few were as small in stature as Edith Windsor — and few made as big a difference to America.”