It’s interesting to see how much changed—as well as how much did not—about how trans people were greeted and treated in the intervening decades. You may have noticed the word “transsexualism” on the cover, a word that is no longer used—and is, in fact, frowned upon. In 1974, when the book was published, the whole field of gender theory was about 20 years in the future, so when Morris wrote in the book that “gender is more important than sex,” she was one of the first people to articulate a difference between gender and sexuality. This helped to open up our language to new ideas and ways of expression.
The very idea of people changing the gender they were assigned at birth was almost unheard of when Conundrum came out, especially in what was then called “polite society,” and it’s one reason the book caused such a big splash. Another was that Morris was well known as a writer, especially for being brave and adventurous—or as the profile of her in The New York Times Magazine at the time of Conundrum’s publication put it, with a degree of amazement: “His whole career and reputation had created an aura of glamorous and successful masculinity.” Morris had been an officer in a cavalry regiment at the end of World War II and into the early 1950s. He climbed 22,000 feet up Mt. Everest to scoop the rest of the world on the day Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to reach the summit. After more than 10 years reporting all over the world for The Times of London and The Guardian, Morris turned to writing books about the many places he’d traveled, writing she continues to do today.
Conundrum was heavily promoted by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich—the name of the company prior to its acquisition of Houghton Mifflin—and both the book and Morris received much publicity. I dug through our archives to find clippings of newspaper ads from the time. There are several for Conundrum there, including this one that appeared in The New York Times Book Review one month after publication: