This 1999 life-sized bronze statue, sculpted by John Woffinden and Sally Francis, is of Dame Roma Mitchell (1913 –2000), a great South Australian woman who achieved three major State firsts:
• Dame Roma graduated (from the University of Adelaide) as a lawyer in 1934 and in 1965 she became the first female judge appointed to the South Australian Supreme Court after having become the first Australian Woman admitted as a Queen’s Counsel in 1962. Dame Roma was still the only women judge of the Supreme Court in Australia when she retired after 18 years in the position in 1983, aged 70
• In 1972 she became the first female chancellor of a major university – the University of Adelaide
• In 1991 she became the first female State Governor when she was appointed Governor of South Australia.
Throughout her life Dame Roma struggled hard for the rights of women and equality for all. Her achievements were the result of hard work and toil. She was secretive and rarely fraternised with the press yet the people of South Australia loved her. The well respected Australian newspaper wrote that when she was being sworn in as Governor of South Australia, amidst all the pomp and ceremony on the lawns of Government House, woof whistles could be heard from a building site across the road – the builders were shouting ‘Good on ya, Roma’.
Mitchell never had any political affiliations so her appointments and awards came form both sides of politics – there were no scandals here.
The one thing that had potential for scandal was Dame Roma’s sexuality, which was widely discussed by everyone other than her. She was, of course, aware of the gossip and was, at times, not averse to fuelling it.
Dame Roma never married. As such, it was concluded by many that she was a lesbian. A senior member of the History Department at Flinders University provided evidence for this – apparently she used to have lunch in the same café as a number of men known to be homosexuals. Good heavens!
The then Governor General, a man known for his discretion, Sir William Deane (who incidentally unveiled Dame Roma’s statue a year previously), related the following Dame Roma taunt of a journalist, during his eulogy at her funeral mass:
“During an interview in her early years on the Supreme Court, the following exchange occurred with a somewhat brash journalist. ‘You are not married?’ ‘I am not’. ‘And you do not drive a car?’ ‘I do not’. Undeterred by the terseness of the replies, the journalist pressed on: ‘The Chief Justice, Dr Bray, is also unmarried. Is there any chance that the two of you might get together?’ ‘No’, Roma replied, ‘that would be no good at all. He doesn’t drive a car.’”
As it happened, Dr Bray was gay.
Mitchell could be sarcastic and witty too, especially with her colleagues.
Senator Amanda Vanstone, in 2002, related, in a reflection on Dame Roma, how she always went out for lunch on Thursdays. One particular Thursday she returned unexpectedly to find her Associate and a companion half naked and locked in a tangle on a table in the office – ‘Oh, really!’, Dame Roma exclaimed, ‘That’s where I eat my lunch’.
Former Associate, Lindy Powell QC, in an interview on ABC television in June 2004 related:
“When we were in Sydney, we were going out, and while Dame Roma changed, she asked me if I would pop into the laundry and pick up her washing that she’d stuck in the dryer. When I picked it up, I discovered it was leopard-print underwear. So I dashed back to the room. ‘Roma, you’re wearing leopard-print underwear!’ She said, ‘Yes, I know. Isn’t it gorgeous!’”
Lesbian or not? I don’t know.
Address: North Terrace
Directions: Outside Government House. Between King William Road and Kintone Avenue.