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Next week, when those two cases about gay marriage are argued before the Supreme Court, one woman in particular will be watching closely. The case that tests the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, is hers.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg tells us about the woman who challenged the law.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Edith Windsor likes to be called Edie. She is 83; dresses in classic, tailored clothes, usually with a long string of pearls; and she sports a well-coiffed, shoulder-length flip. She looks for all the world like a proper New York City lady - which, in most ways, she is.

The crux of her legal case is that after more than four decades living with Thea Spyer - and a marriage recognized as legal in New York - Edie Windsor had to pay $363,000 in estate taxes when Spyer died because the federal government did not recognize their marriage as valid.

EDITH WINDSOR: If Thea was Theo, I would not have had to pay that. It's heartbreaking. It's just a terrible injustice, and I don't expect that from my country. I think it's a mistake that has to get corrected.

TOTENBERG: Windsor was born in 1929, shortly before her parents lost their home and business in the Depression. As a teenager, she was, by her own account, very popular with boys. And after graduating from Temple University, Windsor got married. But at the movies, she secretly identified with leading man Dick Powell, not his frequent co-star Ruby Keeler. So, after less than a year, Edie and her husband divorced.

WINDSOR: I told him the truth. I said, honey, you deserve a lot more. You deserve somebody who thinks you're the best because you are. OK? And I need something else.

TOTENBERG: She moved to New York City, worked as a secretary, got a master's in mathematics at NYU, and soon was on her way to a career as a top programmer at IBM. All the while, she hid her homosexuality.

WINDSOR: Societally, that was - you know, that was impossible. I really was a middle-class girl, and of course you didn't want to be queer.

TOTENBERG: Finally, though, she asked an old friend for help.

WINDSOR: If you know where the lesbians are, please take me. And so she took me to the Portofino Restaurant.

TOTENBERG: There, she met Thea Spyer, who for 42 years would be the love of her life and eventually, her wife. Spyer was a psychologist with a large New York practice. In 1967, on a drive to the country, Thea asked Edie what she would do if she got an engagement ring. After all, if co-workers saw it, they'd want to meet the guy.

WINDSOR: And when we got to the house, she got out of the car and got down on her knees and said, Edie Windsor, will you marry me? And this pin appeared.

TOTENBERG: A circle pin with diamonds. At the time, of course, there was no place the two could actually marry. But they led good lives together. After 13 years, Thea was diagnosed with MS, but the disease at first progressed slowly.

WINDSOR: Her first symptom was, she couldn't complete her golf swing. And then it was very gradual, except it turned into a fairly vicious, progressive MS.

TOTENBERG: Edie eventually took early retirement to help care for Thea, and they waited and hoped for the day New York would legalize same-sex marriage. Thea continued to see patients. But in the last years of her life, much of Edie's time was devoted to helping her partner. The two thought of going to Canada, where same-sex marriage was legal and recognized by New York state, but Edie says that with all the lifts and gear that Thea needed to travel...

WINDSOR: My feeling was, I don't have to drag her through that.

TOTENBERG: Then suddenly, it was clear the end was near.

WINDSOR: She got a lousy prognosis, which said within a year. And she got up the next morning and she said, do you still want to get married? And I said yes. And she said, me too. And we did.

TOTENBERG: They flew to Toronto with two best men and four best women. The photos show nothing but joy.

WINDSOR: The fact is - you know, marriage is this magic thing. I mean, forget all the financial stuff. Marriage symbolizes commitment and love, like nothing else in the world. And it's known all over the world. I mean, wherever you go, if you're married, that means something to people. And it meant - the difference in feeling, the next day, was profound. And I've asked everybody since, who gets married after long-term relationships, did it feel different the next day? And the answer is always yes, absolutely.

TOTENBERG: Thea Spyer died 21 months after the couple's wedding. Edie has a life-sized photo of Thea in their apartment. She says she sometimes leans up against it, and talks to Thea about the progress of the case known as Windsor v. United States.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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