‘There is nothing like a dame, nothing in the world.
There is nothing you can name, that is anything like a dame’
Song from South Pacific, 1949.
In 1949 when the famous song ‘There is nothing like a Dame’ was released, there was certainly nothing, or nobody, like Dame Roma Mitchell. A champion of women’s rights, Dame Roma was one of the most influential pioneers of her time. Representing change and providing inspiration for many, Dame Roma was a woman of many firsts: the first female Queen’s Counsel, Supreme Court Judge and Governor of South Australia. She was also the first Chairperson of a Human Rights Commission in Australia and nearly 50 years after graduating from the University of Adelaide, she returned as Chancellor, adding ‘first female Chancellor in Australia’ to her list of accomplishments.
Born in 1913, Dame Roma always intended to study law; she described it as a ‘family thing’. Her father, who died when she was only four years old, was a lawyer, as was her grandfather. Whilst she inherited her love of law from her father, it is her mother who is credited with teaching her daughter many of the traits she would later become known for: courage, honesty, the desire to learn and the will to maintain standards. She was also the driving force behind Dame Roma’s education—determined to provide her with the career opportunities she never had.
From a young age, Dame Roma developed a sense of social justice that would remain throughout her life. At school she often found herself in the position of ‘defender’; the one who would express if things weren’t fair and stick up for those being bullied. Years later, as she commenced her Bachelor of Laws at the University of Adelaide, these qualities remained strong. Further motivated by the poverty and unemployment of her time, she was determined to make a difference. ‘I think what I thought was that I was going to get people their rights. We didn't ever hear of human rights in those days’, Dame Roma recalled (Australian Biography).
Dame Roma excelled in her law studies at the University of Adelaide, completing her course in four years instead of five and graduating in 1934 with the David Murray Scholarship Award for the most brilliant student. She also continued her search for justice during her university days, where she was instrumental in forming the Women’s Law Students’ Society after being barred from joining the existing society. Her association with the University did not end at graduation however, in fact, it had only just begun. Dame Roma maintained a 60-year relationship, returning as a lecturer in family law, a member of the Council and as Chancellor from 1983 to 1990.
Dame Roma is also recognised for her profound achievements while practising law. She was honoured to become the first female member of the Queen’s Counsel, after rising to the top in what was traditionally a male-dominated profession. While she only set out to become a successful barrister, Dame Roma found herself in a position of pioneer. She became a crusader for equality, led a mission to seek the rights for women to serve as jurors, and advocated equal pay for equal work.
In 1965, Dame Roma marked another significant milestone when she became a judge of the Supreme Court and the first woman in Australia to be appointed to that position. ‘I said yes straight away because I thought I should accept the appointment. I thought I owed it to women. And I did enjoy it… You know, if you don't do a first in something then there's no follow on’, she explained (Australian Biography).
In 1991 she was made a Companion of the Order of Australia and also became Governor of South Australia. Once again being the first woman ever to be appointed to such a position. While in the role, Dame Roma won the hearts of many South Australians for her compassion and interest in people from all backgrounds.
Dame Roma sadly lost her battle with bone cancer on 5 March 2000. Today, she is not only remembered for her ‘firsts’ or promotion of human rights and equality, but for her influence on the reform and development of criminal law. Often called the state’s First Lady, Dame Roma was awarded a state funeral. Following this, the Australian customs vessel ‘Dame Roma Mitchell’ was commissioned in her honour.
Dame Roma’s pioneering achievements, her personal integrity and her commitment to public service has made her a role model for many Australians. The memory of her spirit and energy will continue to inspire those working to achieve her vision of a better and fairer society.
Dame Roma Mitchell
Dame Roma Mitchell statue on North Terrace, Adelaide