The Pilgrimage to Casablanca: Jan Morris’s Conundrum and Trans Authorship in 1970s Britain

Sunday, January 5, 2020: 2:10 PM
Gramercy West (New York Hilton)
Gil Engelstein, Northwestern University
1970s Britain witnessed a surge in popular awareness of transgender identities and practices. However, the leading voices in public discourses surrounding trans people were rarely trans people themselves. Tabloid reporters, medical practitioners, legal authorities, and feminist activists all shared a deep suspicion of transgender claims of authority over one’s experiences. This paper reviews the work of two exceptional British transgender intellectuals, Jan Morris and Carol Riddell, whose writings during that decade achieved unusual recognition. It argues that the ideas of both women were misaligned with contemporary paradigms of gender and gender transition, which contributed both to their reception and eventual rejection.

Riddell and Morris had first met in 1972 in Casablanca, Morocco, where they travelled separately for gender confirmation surgery at Dr. Georges Burou’s clinic. Both were effectively barred from accessing medical treatment in Britain; Morris had refused the pre-condition of divorcing her wife, and Riddell had faced a years-long waiting period. This experience stood at the heart of Morris’ memoir Conundrum, which was published in 1974 and soon became an international bestseller. A well-known public figure prior to her transition, Morris was famous for her journalistic reporting, travel writing, and monumental history of the British empire. This reputation was crucial in guaranteeing the publication and wide reception of Conundrum. Carol Riddell’s 1980 pamphlet Divided Sisterhood, in contrast, received far less mainstream exposure, but proved impactful in the women’s movement. Riddell was a sociologist and a Trotskyist activist who became deeply involved in feminist initiatives after her transition. Delivering a scathing critique of Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire, Riddell’s Divided Sisterhood drew from the personal and the ideological to argue for the harm and danger of Raymond’s text. Read together, the work of Riddell and Morris illuminate the possibilities and limitations in asserting trans authority and authorship in 1970s Britain.

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