Encyclopedia Womannica

Mavericks & Legends: Roberta Cowell

Episode Summary

Roberta Cowell (1918-2011) was a war hero, race car driver, and a trans pioneer. She changed the way people think about gender identity and was the first British trans woman to undergo sex reassignment surgery.

Episode Notes

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Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s Maverick was a war hero, race car driver, and a trans pioneer. She changed the way people  think about gender identity and was the first British trans woman to undergo sex reassignment surgery. Let’s talk about Roberta Cowell. 

Robert Marshall Cowell Was born in 1918 in Croydon, England.  She was one of three children born into an upper-middle class family. Her father was a prominent surgeon and her mother was interested in social work and the arts. Roberta later described her upbringing as “strict, religious, and moral,” and her family’s strong convictions led Roberta to be anti-religious for many years. 

Roberta struggled at school, where students bullied her for her weight, but she found her place in the Motor Club.  Roberta loved cars and dreamed of becoming “a racing motorist” from an early age. She was also interested in photography and film-making.

At the age of 16, Roberta left school to work as an apprentice aircraft engineer and soon joined the Royal Air Force. In 1935, Roberta became an acting pilot officer, but was discharged due to motion sickness. 

Roberta returned to engineering and studied at University College London. She wanted to become an automobile engineer—she thought cars had more personality than planes. To get experience, Roberta would dress as a mechanic and sneak into race track service areas, where she’d offer help to the drivers. 

In 1936, Roberta fulfilled her childhood dream of motor racing and won her class at the Land’s End Speed Trial. By 1939, she had competed in the Antwerp Grand Prix. 

In 1941, Roberta married Diana Carpenter, a fellow engineering student who shared her love of racing. They would go on to have two daughters.

But World War II was looming, and shortly before her marriage, Roberta was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the army. In 1942, she was transferred to the Royal Air Force and became a front-line Spitfire pilot performing aerial recon. 

 In her autobiography, Roberta wrote about the dangers of flying during the war. She said, “Narrow escapes were a daily event...Several of my closest friends were killed, and I regarded it as just a matter of time.” 

On one occasion, Roberta lost all radio contact and had to find her way home through thick clouds. She almost crashed into the sea, but landed on cliffs right before her fuel tank hit empty. On another occasion, she survived a crash and was taken to a German POW camp where, due to limited food, she said prisoners were forced to eat raw cats. 

After the War, Roberta started racing again and even founded a motor-racing team. But she suffered from depression, and later described this period of her life as “pointless and empty.”

 By 1948, Roberta had separated from Diana, and her depression worsened. Roberta said she made active efforts to show the world she was masculine and assertive. She later said,  “It was an attempt to make up for what I knew, deep down inside me consciously: my nature was essentially feminine and in some way my world out of joint.”

During this time, Roberta met a woman named Lisa, who would be her companion and friend for the next 30 years. She also met physician Michael Dillon, the first trans man to undergo phalloplasty. 

Dr. Dillon helped her remove her testicles in a secret operation. The procedure was illegal at the time, but it helped Roberta be diagnosed as intersex, which allowed her to change the sex on her birth certificate to female.

Due to an illegal surgery by physician Michael Dillon, the first trans man to undergo phalloplasty, Roberta was able be diagnosed as intersex, which allowed her to change the sex on her birth certificate to female.

 In 1951, she underwent vaginoplasty performed by Sir Harold Gillies, who was considered to be the father of plastic surgery.

In 1954, Roberta sold the story of her gender reassignment surgery to newspapers. The public was fascinated, though the concept of changing one’s gender was new and often misunderstood. 

News reports confused sexuality with gender identity, and transgender women were assumed to be homosexual men. Roberta’s story broke that narrative. She was previously married to a woman with two children, and her experience with combat service and motor racing were considered very masculine accomplishments and perceived to be unusual for transgender women. 

Roberta continued to race and in 1957, she won the Shelsley Walsh Speed Hill Climb. 

In 1958, Roberta acquired a combat aircraft and intended to perform a record-breaking flight across the South Atlantic.  But the project was never completed and later that year, Roberta was declared bankrupt. 

Roberta struggled to find employment and her financial issues worsened. While she continued to race cars  well in the 1970s, she largely remained out of the public eye. 

In the 1990s, Roberta moved into a London nursing home. In 2011, at the age of 93, she died. She instructed that her death not be publicized, and only six people attended her funeral. In lieu of flowers, her friends hung a sign that said “Roberta Cowell Racing” over her coffin. 

Roberta’s courage is notable not just for her bravery in the face of war, but in her extraordinary fight against societal norms to have her gender identity recognized. 

For the month of May, we’re talking about Mavericks and Legends. We’re highlighting women who went against prescribed gender norms to make a name for themselves -- for better or for worse. Some of these women did incredible things for society and should be celebrated, others had a big impact that was not quite so rosy. The collection of women we’re featuring this month is complex and nuanced, much like all women are. 

Tune in tomorrow to hear the story of another famous Maverick or Legend!

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!