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Edith Windsor, middle, reacts to cheers as she arrives for a news conference following the U.S. Supreme Court 5-4 ruling striking down as unconstitutional the Defense of Marriage Act, in New York June 26, 2013. At right is Windsor's lawyer Roberta Kaplan. The Court ruled in favor of Windsor, who sued the federal governement for failing to recognize her marriage to her partner Thea Spyer after Spyer's death.MIKE SEGAR/Reuters

The same-sex-marriage verdict by the U.S. Supreme Court was spurred by two women who were together for 40 years, at first hiding their relationship, then eventually travelling from New York to Toronto to marry.

When Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer wed in 2007 at the Sheraton Gateway Hotel, near Pearson airport, they were in their 70s and Ms. Spyer's long battle with multiple sclerosis had confined her to a wheelchair.

It was a bittersweet occasion because the two women were in the autumn of life and couldn't afford to wait for their country to legalize same-sex marriage. "We just said, 'We're running out of time,'" Ms. Windsor told The Globe and Mail at the time.

Less than two years later, Ms. Spyer died. Her death and her Canadian marriage set off a chain of events that would make legal history and turn her widow into a historic figure of the movement for gay rights.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Ms. Windsor's favour and quashed a key part of a federal law that denied benefits to same-sex married couples.

Her legal fight, case No. 12-307, United States of America v. Edith Schlain Windsor, looked at a paradoxical situation in which Ms. Windsor was boxed in after Ms. Spyer's death.

Because New York State recognizes their Canadian marriage, Ms. Windsor was able to inherit Ms. Spyer's estate.

However, under the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, Ms. Windsor was not considered married under the eye of the U.S. federal government. Therefore she couldn't claim the federal estate-tax exemption for surviving spouses and was hit with a $360,000 fiscal bill.

According to an affidavit she filed in court, Ms. Windsor grew up in Philadelphia and attended Temple University. In 1950, she married a classmate and family friend, an Army veteran named Saul Weiner.

"Although I had had the feeling that I was attracted to women, and not men, since I was a young girl … In the context of the homophobia that was so prevalent in the 1950s, I certainly did not want to be a 'queer,'" she said in the sworn statement.

Within two years, they had divorced and she moved to New York to work on a master's degree in mathematics. She got a computer job that involved programming for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and, on being questioned by the FBI, was terrified that being a lesbian would threaten her security clearance.

In an interview this spring with NPR, Ms. Windsor said that by 1962 she had grown tired of hiding her sexual orientation and asked a friend to take her "where the lesbians are."

She was directed to the Portofino, a gay-friendly Greenwich Village restaurant where the thirtysomething divorcée first laid eyes on Ms. Spyer.

They left together to go to a party, where they danced together for so long that Ms. Windsor wore a hole through her stockings.

A clinical psychologist, Ms. Spyer had her own experience with discrimination. In the early 1950s, she was expelled from university when a campus security guard caught her kissing another woman, according to a court brief her widow filed.

In 1967, Ms. Windsor said in her NPR interview, the two women were returning from a drive in the country when Ms. Spyer got out of the car, got down on her knees and asked: "Edie Windsor, will you marry me?"

To avoid questions from co-workers, Ms. Spyer gave her fiancée a diamond brooch instead of a ring.

They moved in together, one working at IBM, the other having a private clinical-psychology practice. By 1977, Ms. Spyer was diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis.