Historiography Saturday: Roberta Cowell


Roberta Cowell, the first British woman to be outed in the press as transgender (and the first to undergo gender-reassignment surgery) was a race car-driving, fighter-plane flying, veteran of World War II. After years of struggling business ventures (including the production of a racing engine) she sold her story to the newspapers for enough money to erase her debts, then went right back to quenching her need for speed; she still owned flashy cars up to the point of her death.

Gaining approval for vaginoplasty – and credibility in the public eye – required Cowell to declare herself intersex. According to her narrative she was only late in developing feminine physical characteristics. However, as one medical review of her autobiography pointed out, her scientific claims were highly dubious, doubly so because she had every incentive to mimic the respected intersex narrative of Lili Elbe. To complicate things further, Cowell held an attitude toward transition that excluded most other trans women, indicating that she may have believed at least some of her hype.

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