Interview with transsexual Roberta (Betty) Cowell

Note by Liz Hodgkinson: the book referred to was not passed by Betty for publication. But out of the many hours I spent trying to get to grips with Betty’s story, came Michael, nee Laura the forthcoming film of which will explain why Betty did not pass the book about her for publication.

The following interview with Roberta Cowell, by the late Michael Bateman, appeared in the Atticus column of The Sunday Times on March 12, 1972.

Roberta CowellRoberta Cowell, the wartime fighter pilot who re-registered as a woman in 1951, is writing another book to try to raise the money to go back into motor racing.

She’s 53, an age when you might think one’s speed of reaction isn’t so snappy; she says hers is. “Nothing falls off my mantelpiece and hits the deck if I’m anywhere near it. I have lapped Silverstone in half-a-second under the class record.”

Hasn’t she had enough publicity without writing another book? The operation was the sensational news story of the decade and each time in the last 21 years when there’s a sex-change story in the news, Roberta’s story is retold. She says there is a lot more to say: for instance there are some white lies about her ‘marriage’ to put right: but the most important message could be to those thinking of following her. It would be: DON’T.

“I was a freak. I had an operation and I’m not a freak any more. I had female chromosome make-up, XX. The people who have followed me have often been those with male chromosomes, XY. So they’ve been normal people who’ve turned themselves into freaks by means of the operation.

“At Hammersmith hospital the surgeons carry out about two operations a month. Many of those people will regret the operation later. There have been attempted suicides. They don’t change sex, as everyone knows, because the operation doesn’t alter the chromosomes.

“Many people thought they could copy me. But it’s like admiring someone without legs, like Bader, and having your legs off to be the same. Or it’s more like seeing a thalidomide child, and having an operation to be the same.”

Liz Hodgkinson, who’s writing the book with her, says Betty Cowell (as Roberta’s known to friends) is like no man or woman she’s ever met. “She’s a very masculine lady.”

In Richmond her home is cluttered with pilots’ helmets, high-frequency radios, models of planes and racing cars. She’s logged 1,600 hours as a pilot (recently she flew at Mach 2 twice the speed of sound). “Driving is what I do best. Jet planes don’t have personality the way racing cars do.” On the other hand she says she’s fond of music, and does needlework and tapestry. Picking up an example: “This is petit point. (Laughs). Well, grand point.”

In the book she will have her say on the changes in the sexual roles in the last 21 years. She doesn’t approve of the Permissive Society and she doesn’t welcome Women’s Lib. She certainly hopes the trend towards Unisex has stopped. It’s unhealthy, unnatural. “My experience shows that men and women are so completely different as to be almost different species.”

But she doesn’t feel she can say what it’s like to be a man, except in the social sense, because even at school she was physically a woman. Her breasts developed like a woman’s and she held them down with an elastic support. “I consciously tried to develop my muscles to compensate, so I was good at sport. I’d have thumped anyone who tried to send me up. But I always hated little boys, and I still see a lot of the little boy in the racing fraternity, especially when there’s a dinner night.”

She never sought the company of men, though she’s found they’ve sought hers. “When the story first broke I received 400 proposals. Some of them of marriage. I could have had titles, money, the lot.” She’s always preferred women, but this isn’t something she’d write about, out of consideration to friends.

Many of her friends are young people in fact, which is one more reason why she finds herself drawn back to motor-racing. “There’s nothing wrong with young people today,” she says with a smile. “You couldn’t meet a finer body of men, women and intersexes.”

- - March 1972