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Roberta Cowell: Transgender Activist and Inspiration National Women’s History Month



Roberta Cowell was a very prolific woman, and transgender rights activist, who is very well known for becoming the first known woman in Britain to receive sexual reassignment surgery in 1948. While also being one of the first in the world to get the surgery, she became a pioneer in the LGBTQ+ community. There is much to learn from her courage, and all her accomplishments despite struggling with gender identity.


At a young age, Roberta took a strong interest in cars and racing. Eventually, she became a race car driver, married a woman named Diana, and had two children. While it sounds like the perfect story, one piece was still missing; her gender identity. Roberta was assigned male at birth, and at this point was still identifying as male and with her dead name, so soon after the marriage, she began having feelings of self-doubt. Roberta knew deep down that she was female, and born in the wrong body.


Roberta had many talents ranging from race car driving, and also being a pilot. She competed in the Belgian Grand Prix and was a very well-decorated racer. Additionally, she was a trained pilot, who even served as a fighter pilot during World War II. During this time, her plane was shot down and she was captured. After being released,

Roberta began coming to terms with her inner feelings and their validity and began making changes to match the way she felt inside to her outside appearance. She split from her wife, and her life completely changed for the better.


While it was shocking for the public to see her transition, Roberta began presenting as her real self. Through a long process of hormone therapy, gender reassignment surgery, and identity changes, “Since May 18th, 1951, I have been Roberta Cowell, female,” “I have become woman physically, psychologically, glandularly and legally,” (Roberta Cowell’s Story). In 1954, she had her story published in “The Picture Post”, and even published her own autobiography in 2008. She proceeded in still racing in competitions after her transition, though she slowed down in her later years. Her heroism, and bravery for the transgender community, and for women everywhere, are beyond admirable.


“It's easier to change a body than to change a mind” - Roberta Cowell

Research Coordinator - Kelsey Sticher

Illustrations and Graphics by Jhem Picache, Althea Ocomen, Shaina Rahman


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