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Hon. Dame Roma Mitchell AC CBE

Dame Roma Mitchell is one of the most important women in South Australian public life, through her legal career, membership of the Human Rights Commission, and as Governor of South Australia. As Governor she occupied a position in the hearts of South Australians for her personality, her humanity and for her words of wisdom. Included here is a story on Dame Roma from the Centenary of Women's Suffrage in 1994. As Patron of the Centenary, Dame Roma was involved in the launch of many events, and according to Rosemary Cadden "her speeches reveal a woman who is as strong a feminist now as she has been throughout her life."

An example of the advocacy role played by Dame Roma when she was Roma Mitchell QC can be seen in her support in 1962 for the efforts of the League of Women Voters to change the legislation to allow women to sit on juries. The arguments put by Roma Mitchell to the Premier Tom Playford were successful.

Also included here is an overview of the Dame Roma Mitchell papers held in the State Library of South Australia.

Media release by Rosemary Cadden during the Centenary of Women's Suffrage celebrations in 1994

"As far as being a woman is concerned, I am hopeful that in my lifetime, appointments such as this will not excite comment."

Dame Roma Mitchell made that comment in 1965, when as a QC, she became the first woman judge of a superior court in Australia on her appointment to the Supreme Court in South Australia. When she retired from the Bench in 1983—eighteen years later—she must have been wondering about that statement. There had been no opportunity for any comment -excited or otherwise. She was still the only woman judge of a superior Court in the country.

Before this appointment, Dame Roma had already notched up a number of "firsts" for women—and she added a few more since. In 1962, she became the first women Queen's Counsel in Australia. In 1972, she became the first woman Deputy Chancellor of the University of Adelaide. She was elected Chancellor of the University in 1983 and in the same year, she spent a few months as the country's first woman Acting Chief Justice before her retirement. In 1991, she became the first woman Governor in Australia.

The media has called her South Australia's First Lady - but, from her statements over the years, it's clear Dame Roma would have much preferred not to have this title. It showed how slowly the wheels of equality were turning. Maybe that's why she became an advocate of affirmative action.

On her appointment to the Supreme Court Bench in 1965, she said: "Women should be able to take whatever place they are fitted to take in the professions. I do not mean that a woman should ever be appointed to any significant office, merely because she is a woman. But women's intellectual and other attainments should be recognised objectively and I am sure they are being more widely appreciated nearly everywhere in today's world."

In 1982, she said "better opportunities for women do not mean they should relax. Results of past discrimination are going to take a long time to reverse."

In 1993, in her Phillip Hughes Oration at St Michael's Collegiate, Hobart, Dame Roma, said she and her contemporaries had been all too aware of the prejudice against them in their chosen professions because they were women. They believed that if they ignored the prejudice it would go away, determined that they personally would not be submerged in their efforts to succeed.

"I think that we were right for our time in adopting the maxim "softly, softly catchy monkey", but I also think that that time has passed," she said in her speech. "There is a need for affirmative action, not to give preference to women over men in employment, but to ensure that women do not suffer detriment by reason of gender."

Dame Roma has always been outspoken about equality and she must be feeling a touch of deja vu on reading reports in 1994 on various issues surrounding this issue.

As an Adelaide lawyer in 1962, she was the Australian representative at a United Nations seminar on the Status of Women in Family Law; as a QC she advocated for equal pay for equal work; and throughout her career at the Bar, she was a principal campaigner for the right of women to serve on juries.

Interestingly, an editorial in The Advertiser applauding her appointment to the Supreme Court and supporting her views on women jurors, suggested that, while women jurors was a fine thing, the logic for women judges was not so clear. The editorial states: "Is there any special virtue in having women on the Bench? It is difficult to think of any . . .A woman judge is not expected to use her feminine intuition - supposing there is such a thing."

Although shy of the media - and in fact scathing of magistrates and judges "who went out of their way to attract the attention of the Press", newspaper clippings over the years, reveal Dame Roma's strongly feminist views on issues such as the need for changed attitudes towards working wives, refresher courses for women graduates wanting to return to work after rearing children, part-time work for men and women in times of job shortages, the need for housework to be shared and unified retirement age for men and women.

She created more than bit of debate on the suggestion that boys in kindergarten and early primary school should be taught to play with dolls! This suggestion came during her time as the first Chair of the Human Rights Commission, established in 1981 and replaced in 1986 with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Dame Roma considers this the most important body she served on.

In 1983, she said legislators had to grapple with the marijuana issue. "An interesting step would be for marijuana to be licensed for sale as alcohol is. Now that does hold my interest," she said then.

While being controversial was part and parcel of being the chair of the Human Rights Commission, as Governor of South Australia, Dame Roma does not grant interviews, far less air her personal views.

As Patron of the Women's Suffrage Centenary, however, Dame Roma has been involved in the launch of many events-and her speeches reveal a woman who is as strong a feminist now as she has been throughout her life.

Various quotes of Dame Roma's—

"In spite of the apparent acceptance today of the proposition that equity demands that there be equal pay for equal work, I know that statistics show that women generally occupy lower paid jobs than do men, and that equality of opportunity for women has not yet been achieved."
"As women's roles in the workforce increase in number and in variety, their influence in unions should also increase."
From: Closing of Women's Week organised by the United Trades and Labour Council Friday 23 September 1994.

"All right-thinking persons will agree that any last obstacle to the election of appropriate women to Parliament should be removed.
From: Opening of the exhibition "A woman's place-celebrating women in politics 1894-1994 displayed in Parliament House-Friday 22 April, 1994.

"I was frequently requested to speak at meetings in favour of the proposition that women should receive equal pay for equal work. In theory, that was achieved, but in practice there is still leeway to be made up in the evaluation of work ordinarily performed by women and in affording to women equal opportunities for promotion with due regard to the fact that women as mothers will ordinarily undertake the major role as child carers and many necessarily have to put on hold their professional advancement while their children are young."
From: Launch of Women's Suffrage Centenary Tapestry Wednesday 20 April, 1994.

Dame Roma Mitchell papers

[The State Library of South Australia is proud to hold the Dame Roma Mitchell papers as PRG 778. This important record group has a detailed series list. Some of the groupings relating to Dame Roma are:

  • Papers relating to appointment as Commander of the Order of the British Empire

  • Letters Patent for judicial appointments of the Supreme Court of South Australia

  • Letters of congratulation received

  • Correspondence 1983-1986 [there is some restriction on access to this series]

  • Letters received 1952-1990 [there is some restriction on access to this series]

  • Subject files relating to organisations of which Dame Roma was patron, and others relating to professional associations

  • Lecture notebooks

  • Programmes and brochures from speaking engagements

  • Passports and travel itineraries

  • Menu from dinner in honour of Dame Roma in 1983

  • Manuscript "The saga of Roma" written 1918 by Miss K.A. Lenihan and her sister Honore

  • Photographs 1960-1987


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This page last updated on Friday 11 April, 2014 15:02



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