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WONDER WOMEN WEEKLY: Roberta Cowell – racing driver, fighter pilot and born a man

Roberta Cowell

In Pride Month, we would like to introduce you to Roberta Cowell – the first transgender woman in the UK, racing driver, Spitfire pilot and war prisoner. Her fascinating story is one of courage, passion and the human strive to be well and live according to our own needs and visions.

Vocation pride

“It’s easier to change someone’s body than his mind,” writes Roberta Cowell in her autobiography “Roberta Cowell’s story”. The photography sequence in the book seems as if it’s not matching the storyline. You will see Robert as a World War Two fighter pilot and a racing driver – both vocations holding quite the masculine energy within. These professions may be the heroic dream occupation for a little boy when asked what he wants to become. Then you see Roberta, who is also racing cars.

The first man in Britain to have gender reassignment surgery seemed to be a complex character, yet she stayed true to her nature. Being behind the wheel was her passion that no gender alignment could override.

In the end, isn’t that the whole purpose of the pride movement – we are who we are because of what we occupy our time with rather than what is our sex?

The smell of gasoline

In 1936 Cowell began studying engineering to be an apprentice aircraft engineer but soon discovered the world of motor racing. She would sneak into the areas where cars were serviced on the Brookland racing circuit. As if gasoline was running in her veins, by 1939, Robert owned three racing cars and had competed in Antwerp Grand Prix. Around that time, she got married to a fellow engineering student, and everything looked pretty standard until the war came.


Being on the front-line of a Spitfire squadron changed the rules, and then everything was at stake. When life is at risk, what is it left to do than look back and reevaluate everything? Robert had enough time for pondering with the thought of the real purpose when she got captivated for five months, taken alive by the Germans after the plane crashed in Belgium.

 She lost almost 25 kilos of weight and recalled killing the prison’s cat to eat it raw out of hunger desperation. It’s still unclear whether that was the time to make her long for that transition – in the camp theatre, she took down a female role, as she thought this would make her look homosexual in the prisoners’ eyes.

Was Robert contemplating becoming Roberta already?

The Transition

Back to freedom, Betty struggled to readjust to life – her wife gave birth to two daughters, and financial affairs seemed hard to deal with. Life changed significantly after reading “Self: a study of ethics and endocrinology”. Not many preliminary circumstances lead to what Roberta did -Dillan, the book’s writer, had agreed to conduct an operation to help her transition.

Dillan himself was born as Laura and was risking his medical license with this illegal operation. Dillan, the world’s first woman to transition to a male, knew well the feeling of being imprisoned in one’s own body. And fell madly in love with Roberta. Following a vaginoplasty surgeon, Roberta completed her transition in May 1951. 

What seemed to be sudden for everyone was a life-long condition for Roberta. She was born with XX male syndrome. One in 25 thousand people are born with such a condition where a hormonal testosterone treatment is required in puberty to induce male characteristics.

She claimed the condition justified her transition and had to file for a new birth certificate. To prove that he was a she from the beginning, Roberta denied any relation with her two daughters. They never saw her after the transition and only found out about her after her death in 2011.

Before we judge, let’s take a step back and pounder with that thought – is it better not to know your dad or to live with the social stigma everywhere you go. Was it the best thing to do? Nobody can judge, yet somehow staying true to oneself seems to be far more critical than anything else. After one of her daughters learned about her father’s death, in an interview at The Telegraph, Dian Cowell says, “ I wanted to get to know Betty so much – I’m sure that if I had, I would have liked her.”

Living an extraordinary life, Betty continued to race after her transition and became the first person to compete for both male and female racing circuits. She continued racing in the 70s, winning more than 400 races over decades of racing.

Moving to Richmond after finishing her career, she made quite the impression – the lady who looks like Marylin Monroe from the neck up and a garage mechanic from the neck down. With the social stigma casting a shadow over her life, Betty stepped away and lived secluded the last decade. Her friends remember her as a witty and exceptional woman. Maybe even wit and humour can save us after all…

The empowerment and drive to live according to one’s own rules make life worth writing books about. To read Roberta’s story could give a feeling of loss and perplexion, but her life certainly was hers. Not someone else’s life.

I wonder, could we all say that about our own lives?

Elena Sergova

Elena Sergova

Storyteller, journalist and freelance production fixer Elena has over 10 years of experience in Bulgarian lifestyle magazines (Amica, L'Europeo, Capital , InGlobo). Her on-field journalistic instincts mixed with experience in digital marketing, a go-getter attitude and Balkan recklessness make the solid compound of a successful production fixer journey.

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This article was written by an independent and third-party author specialising in CBD, hemp and cannabis research. Any opinion, advice or recommendation expressed in the article does not reflect the opinion of Kana Biosciences Ltd. or any of our employees. 

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