By Rama Gaind
PS News Books
Roma the First: A biography of Dame Roma Mitchell
By Susan Magarey & Kerrie Round (Wakefield Press, $39.95, softcover, 465 pages)
The life of Dame Roma Flinders Mitchell is a powerful story of first-time achievements and equally extraordinary contradictions.
Dame Roma (2 October 1913-5 March 2000) was the first Australian woman to be a judge, a Queen’s Counsel, a chancellor of an Australian university and the governor of an Australian state.
Considered to be a pioneer, a crusader for equality and a conservative feminist, authors Susan Magarey and Kerrie Round say: “the central and most important dimension of her life was the way in which she enacted a new mode of living for women, a new, modern form of womanhood, and the ways in which she sought to expand the horizons of possibility for other women”.
Roma the First has an uncomplicated sequential approach; the chapters proceed steadily through her amazing career. The most persuasive section of the book is the reflection of Dame Roma’s interests—law reform, human rights and feminism.
It also includes analysis of South Australia’s Dunstan decade; the social and political uproar around the dismissal of Police Commissioner Harold Salisbury, giving a controversial account of the ensuing Royal Commission which was chaired by Dame Roma; examines the work of the inaugural Human Rights Commission, also chaired by her; and it shows how her personal and public lives merged during her years as the first woman Governor of South Australia from 1991-96.
Her achievements were “unprecedented”. She was the first woman invited to present the Boyer Lectures.
Even the array of inconsistencies are noteworthy offering a “kaleidoscope of differing selves in the one person”: Dame Roma was a practising Catholic in what was then a Protestant world, a committed practitioner of common law who nonetheless sought to change it, a woman in a male-dominated profession and a reformer who was also a traditionalist, especially as a monarchist. She also never married.
This well-researched, authoritative biography covers Dame Roma’s long life—spanning almost the entire 20th century. It goes a long way to explaining her direction and eventual distinction, even suggesting how she attained such eminence and authority.
Edition 303, 6 March 2012
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