April Bates looks back on the extraordinary, yet sadly forgotten, life of Roberta Cowell, one of the first people in the UK to undergo gender reassignment surgery
‘For the first thirty-three years of my life I was Robert Cowell, an aggressive male who had piloted a Spitfire during the war [WW2], designed and driven racing cars, married and become the father of two children. Since May 18th, 1951, I have been Roberta Cowell, female.’
Extraordinary lives are often forgotten. It’s not just astronauts who are inspirational, or movie stars who are talented, tragic, and beautiful. You could say that everyone has a reason that they should be remembered, if the world can find time.
In her last years, it seemed like Roberta Cowell was happy to be forgotten, and the public was happy to oblige her. Only about five people attended the funeral of a woman who had once been a public figure: a professional racing driver, a nazi prisoner of war and, after the war, one of the first people in the UK to undergo gender reassignment surgery. At her request, there was no publicity of her death, to the extent that even her children, whom she’d been estranged from since the time of her transition, did not know.
She was born in Croydon in 1918. From a young age, Cowell was enthusiastic about engineering, and started driving and working on racing cars soon after she left school. On a trip to Germany she was arrested for filming Nazis drilling and got out of prison by burning some blank film, pretending it was the reel they had wanted destroyed. She kept the film of the Nazi drills, and was inspired by her arrest to learn German, knowledge that she claimed saved her life as a prisoner of war. In 1936 she started to study Engineering at University College London, where she met Diana Carpenter. In 1941 the couple married, and had two children together.
During the war she was a fighter pilot, and around the summer on 1944 her spitfire took a direct hit east of Rhine. She was captured by German troops and held as a prisoner of war until April of 1945, when her camp was liberated.
After the war Cowell started racing more competitively, but was consumed by greater and greater depression concerning the war she’d left, and a growing discomfort with her body. In 1950, after psychoanalysis, Cowell started hormone treatment to transition to female. A year later, she was able to get a gynaecologist to declare that she was intersex, and was therefore able to officially alter her birth certificate to show that she was a woman.
Cowell was delighted by the result of her treatment, but in her 1954 autobiography, she describes being regularly publicly shamed for not visibly conforming to a gender binary.
Unfortunately, her assertion that she was intersex became, not just an enabler to allow her to get the gender reassignment surgery and official recognition that she desperately wanted, but also a means to distance herself from other transgender people. In her final interview, in 1972, she was derogatory towards people who had followed her precedent by publicly transitioning.
In her later years, Roberta found it difficult to get work, and lost many of her friends. Her family had been long ago separated, and her youngest daughter had been ‘protected’ from
knowledge of her transition. Her final years were tragically lonely, and she died in 2011, in sheltered housing.
Remembrance isn’t an objective process, because holding some members of society above others as worthy of being written about, talked about and celebrated is a political act. Our understanding of history loses so much by leaving women like Roberta Cowell out. Although not perfect, she lived courageously because she refused not to be herself even in a time which would not accept her.
Roberta Cowell’s autobiography cuts out in 1954. Finally free of the depression she felt living as a man, Roberta ends her book emotively describing the first dance she ever attended as a woman:
‘And now I’m dancing, and all the blood in my body has turned to music. The past is forgotten, the future doesn’t matter, and the glowingly happy present is even better than I had hoped.
I am myself.’
Illustration by April Bates