Champion of slow but steady shift in gender relations

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Dame Roma Mitchell Susan Magarey and Kerrie Round, Roma the First: a biography of Dame Roma Mitchell. Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2007.

Dame Roma Mitchell has many claims to fame — as the first female Queen's Counsel, the first woman to be appointed a judge to an Australian superior court, the first woman to present the Boyer Lectures, the first woman elected Chancellor of an Australian university and the first woman to be appointed Governor of an Australian state.

To compile a biography of such a full and illustrious life while also exploring the complex personality behind these achievements is quite an undertaking. Susan Magarey and Kerrie Round have produced a compelling 400-page insight into this unique, ambitious, intelligent and caring Australian woman.

Roma Mitchell was born on 2 October 1913. Roma the First chronicles her life from growing up with a small, close-knit family in Adelaide. We read of her education in the 1930s at Adelaide University in the largely patriarchal legal system, her career studded with achievements and awards, challenges and triumphs, and, finally, her 'retirement occupation' as Governor of South Australia at the age of 77 (which forced her to give up some of her charity and volunteer work).

Roma the First is more than a story of a remarkable woman. It provides insight into the history of the common law system in Australia and its relationship with political and social life. In particular it highlights the progressiveness of law reform in South Australia during the second half of the 20th century and the central role Mitchell played in this reform.

It also draws attention to the slow shift in gender relations in Australian society and the huge contribution Mitchell made in challenging gender stereotypes and social expectations of women.

Magarey and Round give detailed accounts of Mitchell's fashions, parties and guest lists, and the social and cultural activities she attended in Australia and on her numerous trips overseas. These both demonstrate careful research and give shape to the type of society Mitchell was engaging with and criticising.

The authors, both of whom work at the University of Adelaide, are clearly inspired by the passions and principles of Mitchell's life, and their voices enter this biography in the form of italicised sections providing comment and reflection.

Roma the First illustrates the many aspects of Mitchell's life with sensitivity. It paints a picture of a tenacious, committed woman, supported in her varied and challenging work by her strong Catholic faith, but willing to challenge and explore any doctrine that stifled people's (and particularly women's) right to make choices about their lives.

In our society where the stories of the achievements of Australian men are readily available, it is heartening to hear of the tremendous achievements and contributions of a great Australian woman. May Dame Roma Mitchell's story be heard widely and may we hear many more like it in times to come.

Sophie RudolphIn 2006-2007 Sophie Rudolph spent 20 months working, volunteering and traveling in Europe, Africa and South East Asia. In 2008 she will be teaching at Collingwood College in Melbourne.




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Existing comments

Congratulations to the author of this article.
It expresses so well, exactly what I think about this book, which is quite the most outstanding book I have read for a long while: thoroughly researched, well written, full of information about the society as it was at that time, in Australia and overseas, especially what it was like for women.
Thank you to Sophie Rudolph - let's hear more from and of her.

Sr Deirdre O'Connor. | 08 February 2008  

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