Mitchell, Roma (1913–2000)

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Mitchell, Roma (1913–2000)

Australian feminist, lawyer, and judge who was the first woman governor of an Australian state, South Australia. Name variations: Dame Roma Mitchell. Born Roma Flinders Mitchell in Adelaide, Australia, on October 2, 1913; died on March 5, 2000; daughter of Harold Mitchell (a lawyer) and Maude Mitchell; attended St. Aloysius' Convent College; graduated from Adelaide University; admitted to the bar, 1934; never married; no children.

Appointed first female Queen's Counsel (1962); became the first female Supreme Court judge (1965); was appointed the founding chair of the Australian Human Rights Commission (1981); made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (1982); made a Companion in the Order of Australia (1991); became the first female chancellor of a university (1983); became the first female state governor (1991); awarded the Commander of the Royal Victoria Order (2000).

The granddaughter of a judge and the daughter of a lawyer, Roma Mitchell studied law at Adelaide University, where she helped to found the Women Law Students' Society after being denied admittance to the all-male Law Students' Society. She was recognized as the best student in her class upon her graduation, and was admitted to the bar in 1934, embarking on a career that would focus on criminal law, women's rights and human rights. In 1962, Mitchell became the first woman in Australia to be appointed Queen's Counsel, and that year was instrumental in the successful campaign to allow women to serve as jurors; as Queen's Counsel, she was also a strong proponent of equal pay for equal work. In 1965, she became the first woman supreme court judge in Australia (at her retirement from the bench in 1983, no other women had been so appointed). During her tenure, she served as chair of the South Australian Criminal Law and Penal Methods Re-form Committee (1970–81) and for several years also chaired the Parole Board. She became the founding chair of the Australian Human Rights Committee in 1981, a position she considered of particular importance and one which she would hold until 1986. A longtime member of the Adelaide University Council, in 1983 she became the school's chancellor and the first woman chancellor of a university in Australia. She resigned from the university when she was appointed governor of South Australia in 1991, again becoming the first woman in the country to serve in such a position. A popular governor who continued to advocate for women's equality and human rights, in 1994 she became Patron of the Centenary of Women's Suffrage.

Mitchell was often described as a "conservative feminist" (in the early 1980s she stated measuredly that "women should be able to take whatever place they are fitted to take in the professions") and pointed to as an example of what a woman with ability can achieve without help of special legislation or legal quotas. However, the very rejoicing caused by each of the many firsts she achieved—and the following years of being not simply first but only—eventually caused a change in her perspective. By the last years of her career she favored affirmative action for women, and in the late 1990s expressed the desire to live long enough to see a woman's appointment to a position of high authority merit "no more publicity than the appointment of a man." Alert to the end, she died on March 5, 2000, and was given a state funeral.


"Roma Mitchell," in The Economist. March 11, 2000.

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