Roberta Cowell
1918–2011

Roberta Cowell
00:00 / 03:55

Oh yes. Roberta Cowell! A blonde bombshell. 

Born in 1918 Roberta was assigned male and birth and named Robert. Through her young life Roberta strove to fit into the male role she was assigned, perusing typically male interest. She found a love for cars and even became successful motor-car racer. There are some cars here for you. Maybe you can find as much joy in putting them together as Roberta had anytime she got to tinker with a car. Maybe take them for a spin around the track.

 

When living as Robert, Cowell married a lovely woman named Diana and had two children. The marriage later ended and Cowell loss touch with her wife and children. 

 

At age 16, Cowell dropped out of school to train as an aircraft engineer.  She later joined the Royal Air Force and served in the Second World War as a spitfire pilot. During service, Cowell was captured and was a prisoner of war for five months. Cowell passed the time by teaching automotive-engineering to fellow inmates.

 

After the war, Roberta became increasingly uncomfortable with her male identity. She began to experiment with dressing as a woman and going by the name Roberta. She even began to take estrogen. 

Living as a woman, Roberta finally started to find her true self. 

 

In her transition, she found the book Self by the physician Micheal Dillion incredibly inspiring. The book spoke about how people should be able to determine their own gender. Roberta was so moved by the book she arranged to meet Dillion in person.

 

Upon meeting Dillion, Roberta learned that he was actually a trans man who had not only changed his name and taken testosterone, but also had genitalia reassignment surgery. This was something that was not done at the time. Dillion had his surgeries in secret by surgeon named Sir Harold Gillies. Gillies had gain notoriety as a pioneering plastic surgeon, doing reconstruction surgery on World War Two soldiers.

 

Once introduced to the possibility of genital reassignment surgery, Roberta was eager to have surgery herself. The first step in this process would be an orchiectomy, which was illegal. Lucky for Roberta, Dillion had become committed to helping Roberta and agreed to perform it himself. This was incredibly risky given Dillion was only a medical student at the time and, if caught, Dillion would never be able to practice medicine. 

 

The surgery was sucessful and Roberta was able to get paperwork stating she was intersex. Roberta was then able to go to the surgeon Gillies who was able to perform further surgeries, completing Roberta’s transition. 

 

After the successful surgery, Roberta sold her story to Picture Post. Making her an overnight celebrity. Her story made public the possibility of gender reassignment and also shift some perspectives surrounding the idea. Roberta’s service in the war, marriage, and stereotypically male interests challenged assumptions about trans women.

 

Through her life, Roberta continued to try to get back into motor racing despite the fact that women were not allowed to race. She truly loved the sport and didn’t see any reason her transition should stop her from racing. If you’ve put together cars maybe pop them back apart so the next person can enjoy putting them together. Motor-racing didn’t catch up to allow Roberta to regain her career but there are some fierce photos of her in racing gear and glamorous makeup.

 

Roberta Cowell died in 2011. She redefined how people thought about trans individuals and was bravely the first woman in the UK to have gender realignment surgery. The highly public nature of Roberta’s identity provided a huge inspiration for many trans individuals. While surgery is not for all trans people, that option is important and Roberta was a brave pioneer.