Dame Roma Mitchell (1913 – 2000) was a distinguished academic and lawyer and is considered as one of the great pioneers of the women’s rights movement in Australia.
She showed an early interest in law, following in the footsteps of her father, but appeared to inherit much of her drive for justice and human rights from her mother, who was determined that her daughter would have all the opportunities presented by a higher education.
Roma Mitchell soon realised her potential when she graduated in Law at the University of Adelaide in 1934, topping the course. Her legal career was nothing short of stellar, as she gradually earned a tremendous reputation as a barrister. This was extended into crusading for women’s rights, including the principle of equal pay for equal work and the right for women to serve on juries.
She was the first Australian woman to become a superior court justice in Australia, being appointed to the Supreme Court of South Australia on 23 September 1965. After being offered the position she later explained: “I said yes straight away because I thought I owed it to women”.
Roma Mitchell later became the Governor of South Australia, again the first Australian woman to achieve this status.
Many more honours followed as her illustrious career continued to unfold. She was appointed a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1971 and this was elevated into the title of Dame Commander (DBE) in 1982. On Australia Day in 1991 she was made a Companion of the Order of Australia “for service to the law, to learning and to the community”.
Dame Roma Mitchell passed away on 5 March 2000, aged 86 years. Without doubt she was one of the most influential women in the history of Australia having left an indelible mark on human rights, the women’s movement and the progress of Australian law.
“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, following her 1965 appointment as the first female judge of a superior court in Australia.
Image by Blnguyen: A statue of Dame Roma Mitchell, located at North terrace, Adelaide. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.