Australian Biography

Dame Roma Mitchell - full interview transcript

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Dame Roma, was there anybody at the convent, friend or nun, who you remember as having a particularly strong effect on you?

I find that one rather difficult, some of the nuns, see, all the teachers were nuns at the time I was at school. We had no lay teachers at all. And some of them of course impressed me more than others; some were very good teachers, some I suppose were not, and some had personalities that appealed and some didn't. But I don't know that I regarded anyone as what they like to call a 'role model' these days. I can't say, well, so and so influenced me to do any particular thing one way or another, quite frankly.

Was there a general atmosphere that fostered any particular characteristics in the girls? You said that you'd been moved from one that made them ladylike?

I think that there was certainly encouragement to academic success, strong encouragement to academic success. I had always, for as long as I can remember, intended to study law. Now why, I don't know but, except of course, it was a family thing, but why it should have appealed to me I don't know. There was certainly no discouragement of that, which there could have been in some schools in those days — and it just happened that the first woman lawyer in South Australia, Mary Kitson, who became Mary Tennyson Woods, she had attended that school. And a couple of others had already studied law, from the same school. Now, that wasn't unique. Methodist Ladies College had Dorothy Somerville who died only in 1992, who was a lawyer in her own practice until ... well, she was still going to her office when I came in here to Government House in February 1991 and she was near 90, if not quite. So they'd, you know, come from other schools but there was certainly no discouragement of any academic attitude and there was a great encouragement to academic achievement.

There was nevertheless a general expectation at that time that girls, after they left school, were really marking time until they got married?

Oh, there's no doubt about that, because the majority of girls left school after what we called the Intermediate Exam in those days, which now would be Year 10 I think. Yes. And some left earlier, after Sub-Intermediate, and then did something or another, preparatory to getting married. Oh yes, there's no doubt about that at all. And there was certainly an attitude that you wouldn't waste money on a girl's higher education. And I know people who were at school with me, who would have really liked to go on and do university studies [and] were actively discouraged, but that was by their families, not by the school. And I think that happened until comparatively recently. I don't mean that particular school, I mean with girls from all families.

Did you always come top?

Yes, I think I did.

So did the nuns ever suggest to you that you might want to become a nun?

Oh, no. I don't think they did. We had various people in the school who said they had what we used to call 'vocations'. Some of them didn't become nuns, and one or two, several, did. I remember I used to say in those days — I must have disliked the heat very much when I was a child, I don't mind it at all now, because I can remember saying that I couldn't become a nun because I couldn't survive in the habit they used to wear, you know, they used to wear a great stiff, what we called a 'gamp' ( I'm not sure what its correct term was) and the veils over the heads and a lot of clothes. So I always dismissed it that way. But no, there was never any act of proselytising in the school.

How did you imagine your future at that time?

Well, I imagined that I was going to finish school, go to university, get my LLB degree, become a lawyer, become a barrister, that was it.

You never wanted to do anything else but law?


Do you remember the first time the idea occurred to you?

No, I don't. That's why ... I know it went back many years and I just don't remember. It was for as long as I could remember talking about the future at all. A bit the way small boys used to talk about being engine drivers.

Why law?

Well, see there was a family background in law so I suppose that had something to do with it.

Was it mixed up in your mind with your father?

Quite possibly. Yes, quite possibly, and my grandfather was a judge in bankruptcy here, although he died way back in 1926. As I said, we mingled with cousins whose father was a Queen's Counsel. One of those, only one did in fact become a lawyer, the sister who was older than I, started to do her law course but dropped out and the cousin who's younger than I am, nine years younger than I am, that one, he is a County Court judge in Melbourne. And we still see one another whenever we can and we're in very constant communication. So there was that sort of legal family background, certainly, which I suppose had something to do with it.

How did you think of the law? When you were thinking of it before you knew the detail, what did you think you were letting yourself in for?

I think what I thought was that I was going to get people their rights. I think it was an advanced human rights effort. We didn't ever hear of human rights in those days.

So, it wasn't just the interest in the humanities. Would that have been your bias in your subjects at school?

Well, it was literally all we studied at school. There was virtually no science, there was really no science studied at all. But on the other hand I always enjoyed mathematics and so I probably could have swung over but I was interested in the humanities, nevertheless.

And in those days that probably would have led you, the professions that were obvious for women were teaching and nursing?

Oh yes, yes. There was a lot of encouragement to teaching at the school too, because that was a good thing for women to do until they got married.

But it never attracted you?

No, no it didn't.

So, when you went through school and you had this notion that you wanted to stick up for people's rights, and that's what the law would do, did you start acting on that while you were still young? Was that something that you began to get interested in before you began the study of law? In other words, at school did you find yourself in the role of the defender of others?

I think I was, at school, the one who always tended to put forward if things were not, in our words, 'fair'. I always found myself, or if I thought somebody was being 'picked upon', would be the expression we would have used in those days, I think I did find myself in that position as a defender, yes.

And what did the nuns think of that?

I got by very well, really. I think I was always a very courteous child, that was upbringing. So my suggestions were always put forward tactfully and in the appropriate language. Ah, that must have been why I got by, I was always very well-treated at school.

So, you would actually say some quite strong things that were implicitly critical of the way things were done. And get away with it?

And get away with it.

... by being polite and courteous.

I think so. I hope also by being reasonable.

Do you think that's a pattern that you continued to observe, that you knew that you could actually do and say things that stood over against what was the established view, provided that you didn't overstep the line in relation to your personal demeanour?

I think that has been a way I have behaved. I don't know that I've done it intentionally. I think it's been innate. But I don't know that I've always been successful in not being considered to step over the line. I suppose the most difficult period in my life was when I, from that point of view, chaired the Human Rights Commission, when one had to be much stronger and receive very strong criticism.

We'll come back to that later because I'd like to talk to you more about how you coped with that when we get up to the Human Rights. So at this stage at school you planned to do law and was there going to be any financial problem about that?

Well, not really, except of course having to live, but by this stage the whole community had come into The Depression, so very few people had much money anyway. There were university fees. I did in fact win one of the 12 scholarships. There were only 12 scholarships given throughout the whole of South Australia which franked university fees. And I did in fact win one of those, but before that I knew that I could get financial assistance because there was a wonderful man called Sir Samuel McCaughey of a New South Wales family of pastoralists, I think, who had made provision in his will for education for the children of servicemen who'd been killed in World War One. He must have left what must have been a considerable sum of money in those days because every child had the opportunity of further education. Every child of servicemen who'd been killed in the war. I'm not sure whether it went any further if people had died later. I think not, I think it was people who were killed on active, what they used to call on active service. I think he must have envisaged giving the boys a trade and letting the girls learn domestic service, etc.

But the terms of his will had been interpreted very liberally and I have known people who got through their, studied law, studied medicine, and got right through on the terms of the McCackie Bequest. Now I got some little benefit from it in relation to books, etc. There might have been a slight living allowance. I just can't remember. But the majority of it I didn't get because I won the scholarship. But I did know from the age of about 13 onwards that that was there because at that stage we used to be interviewed at about 13 I think by a committee and asked what we wanted to do. And I had had that interview. So I knew that that part was alright.

What did your sister do?

She started off, she wanted to do medicine, but she had a little — she was dissuaded from that and she did what was called Kindergarten teaching in those days and then she went off from that into journalism but then she married later on and of course she didn't do anything thereafter. She always resented the fact that she didn't but she married a man much older than she was who didn't like her continuing with her work which was unfortunate.

Do you think your sister ever had cause to resent the fact that this young, very bright, sister of hers was ... really did so well in life?

Oh, no. I'm sure she didn't. We were like all children when we were young, we argued and disagreed and had our problems, but we were really very devoted to one another and no ...

... You were right there behind her wanting to catch up all the time ...

... Yes, that would have been an irritation, but no, I don't think so. I think we didn't have any problems until she became too ill for her own good.

So she married?

She married.

Did she have children?

No, she didn't and that was the thing that was a great sorrow to her because of an illness she'd had earlier and she didn't understand at the time; nobody did at the time. It turned out she couldn't have children and they didn't want to adopt, which they could have done in those days, so it was a problem, although she had a very happy marriage.

And you were always close to her?

Very close, yes.

Looking back on your childhood, if you had to pick a single figure that really stood out as the person who most shaped you, who would that be?

Oh, my mother. Very strongly.

Could you talk a little bit in summary about why your mother was so important to you?

Well, I think we had a great affinity. I don't think it always happens with mother and daughter but we did. And oh, she had wonderful qualities, she had staying power, she had courage. She was always encouraging. Ah, she entered into the fun of things. She was, you know, just a great person, I thought. And other people thought so too. My friends thought so. I wasn't the only one. A lot of people, a lot of my friends were very fond of her.

She was a woman who'd grown up in Victoria's age?


... and did she ever try and limit you?

Oh, well, you know, she didn't approve of smoking and it wasn't for health's sake in those days. That sort of thing. She was a person of her time in that sort of respect. Yes. Ah, but that's the type of thing. That's the best sort of illustration I can give.

Was she disappointed that you didn't marry or was she just proud of your career?

Well, of course, I hadn't gone terribly far when she died. She died when I was 25 so she didn't know that I wasn't going to marry at that stage. And I really had only just got going. It was quite a sorrow to me that she didn't live long enough to see some of the future.

What did she die of?

Cancer. She had breast cancer when I was about 12, I think, and then 13 years later she had become not well. She had some arthritis etc and of course in those days there were no aids to diagnosis so the surgeon decided that he better see what it was and discovered that she had cancer of the liver. And although it seemed very bad to us at the time, she just didn't pull out of the operation. She went into a coma and really it was the better thing to happen but you don't think it at the time.

How did you cope with it?

Well, it was a great grief to me. It's still a ... even at this stage I have to remind myself that it was many years ago. I still feel on the anniversary of her death, I still feel a grief.

But what she represented still actually is a strong influence on you?

Oh yes, yes.

So, back to your career and where you were standing. You graduated in law. Did you do as well at university as you'd done at school, academically?

I think I did pretty well. I didn't get all the honours but I got the David Murray Scholarship, which at that stage was the scholarship awarded at the end of the course to the person, you know, for best achievement in the whole of the course, so I suppose I did. I also did the course in four years whereas the usual was five years. And ...

Why was that?

Well, we had to do certain arts subjects and if you had a credit in Leaving Honours you could do two years in one of the arts subjects and so at the end of my first year I succeeded in having about five units instead of three, I think it was, and that enabled me to catch up and do the lot in four years. Well, that was mainly financial because I could be admitted to the Bar when I was 21, and I was 21 in the October and I was admitted in the December. So I was eager to get going and to make some money. Not that we made much in those days but it was something anyway.

How many women were in the course when you were doing it?

Oh, we had about 30 out of about 200 students. It was quite a substantial number for those days. Of course, now they'd be at least 50 per cent, possibly more than 50 per cent. But we were quite a strong little body.

And how many of those 30 stayed in the practice of law for a lifetime?

Ah, I can think of five offhand, one of whom is still practicing law, Beryl Lynn, and she was ahead of me in the course and she's still doing her legal practice. Jean Gilmour retired just a little while ago. Helen Solomon who went to New South Wales, who again was ahead of me, she practiced law in New South Wales up until quite recently. But the majority of them gave up on marriage. And didn't come back to it. One or two came back to it but the majority gave up on marriage. And of course, some have died.

You will have witnessed a big change in that respect in your lifetime?

Oh yes, it's a huge change in that the women do go ahead with their own careers and some of them manage, you know, right up until a child comes. And go on practicing. Yes, that's a big change. I think though that there still is a problem in the legal profession as well as in all others. I, in common with other people, would like to see more women right at the top and I think it is a problem still that a lot of women find it necessary to take perhaps up to 10 years off during their childbearing years and until they get the children to school. And that sets them back. And even if they don't take the time off, they don't always spend full-time at it. So I do think it is still a problem in getting them ahead.

So for you, in the practice of law, there were definite compensations in not having a family?

I think in those days it would have been difficult indeed to have achieved what I achieved with a family. I suppose it could have been done; in some professions I knew it to happen. In the law, Joan Rosen over in Melbourne, had a family. She was ahead of me, she was perhaps 10 years ahead of me, and she always continued with her practice of the law. But it was rare.

Did many women actually consciously in those days make the choice, think, 'I love this job, I love this work, and therefore I'm going to have to avoid getting entangled and married because that will mean the end of it.' Was that something that people thought?

I doubt it. I would think not. I don't think I had any such conscious, in fact I'm sure I didn't have any such conscious feelings.

So it wasn't a conscious choice?

No, it certainly wasn't.

Not like dedicating yourself, like a nun?

No, certainly not. No, no.

So you went through this all during a period and came out and started practicing as a young lawyer ...


... right in the heart of The Depression ...

Yes, it was.

Now, could you tell us a little bit about what The Depression was like in Adelaide during that period and how, as a young lawyer, you experienced working and living here with so many people in dire straits?

Yes, as far as the university was concerned, most of us didn't have much money and so that was alright. We made our own fun and of course it was the times too. You know, there'd be one person'd perhaps have a car that the family had been able to give him or her, but most people wouldn't have motor cars. Most of them would have to use public transport and get by some way or another. But it was a lot of fun. We had a good time, but then I did see people — some of my contemporaries used to say they couldn't remember much about it, but I can. I can remember walking along North Terrace to the university and seeing the line of men down Kintore Avenue, which is just on the east of Government House, going to get their ration tickets and all they got was this ration ticket which they could use at a shop to provide food for the family. They got no money and they weren't supposed to get cigarettes on it and ...

... The other day when I went to open something, a man told me that his father had had a milk run out near where I used to live and that it foundered during The Depression because the ration tickets; they couldn't get milk on them. They could get powdered milk from the store. It was really horrifying when you think of what it was like. I remember we used to do our Articles in those days along with our university courses so that for my second year at the university I was in a firm, Articled in a firm, as well as going to the university. So you'd go for lectures and you'd come back to your firm. And it was right opposite the old Advertiser newspaper building and Sir Langdon Bonython, who had been the founder, was there and he out of his beneficence used to give, every Friday, the unemployed would line up and get two shillings each from his secretary and I'd see them lined right down Weymouth Street. Well it was beneficent but it was horrifying to think that's the sort of thing people used to do. I've seen the banks of the Torrens lined with just makeshift huts made of newspapers and bits of boards where the men were sleeping. Men used to come around to the backdoor of the houses asking if they could chop wood or do anything for some food. You'd give them a meal. It's bad now but it's nowhere compared with life in The Depression years, I think.

Even relatively speaking, you think that the poor now, because of course the rich are a lot richer ...


... and we all live at a higher standard ...

... at a much higher standard. Even so, I don't think it's comparable situation as it was then.

What did it mean for you as a young lawyer? Did that affect the practice at all?

Well, yes, it did mean that nobody was making much money in the early days, certainly. And you had to take the good with the bad. The major thing was that there was — as far as it affected the people — I acted for, in my early days, a lot of women who were perhaps subjected to domestic violence, who had literally nowhere to go because nobody had the power to put the husband out of the house if the house was either his or was rented in his name. Nobody could put him out. There was no pension for deserted wives as we used to call it or no family allowance. There was really nothing for them at all. They could get a bit of domestic work but not enough to keep a family on. So a lot of them did put up with violence which they shouldn't have had to put up with. That was one thing that I did know in those early days.

Did you feel completely helpless about that or was there anything you could do?

Well, obviously, there were things that were done and that I must have done myself because I was very touched — when I came into office in Government House I received literally thousands of letters and some came from women for whom I'd acted in those days and I didn't remember them, but a letter would say something like this, "Forty years ago you told me that I couldn't put up with the violence that I was suffering, that the family couldn't endure it and acting on your advice I got out and I'm glad I did," and then mentioning the members of the family "and so and so's married and got three children and what the children have done." Now, they had very long memories so presumably somehow I did help them. Although I don't know that I remember it so much myself at this stage.

It was clearly something that the young Roma found not very fair?

Oh definitely, yes.

And did you feel in the longer term that you wanted to see a world in which those kinds of things could be dealt with in a fairer way?

Oh certainly, yes. There was a big scope for improving the lot of women, apart from the lot of people generally as far as unemployment was concerned. And of course as far as women were concerned, the problem with pay for work was a very serious one because the basic wage, which was the basis on which all wages in factory and other employment were based, was fixed on the assumption that the wage supported a man, his wife and two children, and that the woman supported herself. So she received only a fraction of the man's wages. And often you found that the woman was supporting aged parents or helping them and the man was single, so it was really very unfair and the argument always used to be that the economy wouldn't stand it if they increased the women's wage, so I did a lot of talking about that. That was not really part of my own career but I did a lot of campaigning, one might almost say, talking to various groups on that topic.

In what context, where would you talk?

Oh, mainly the League of Women voters, a very strong group in those days. They handed over eventually to the electoral lobby, Women's Electoral Lobby, and they would organise meetings, not necessarily women's meetings. I can remember going, being invited to go, to Western Australia at one stage to speak to a meeting there. That sort of thing would be — but that would be not strictly relevant to my practicing my profession. And of course it didn't affect me because I was in a profession and so I was able to make my own terms but it did effect so many women.

Did everybody working in the legal profession at every level get equal pay though?

I don't think they did. I think a lot of women who were lawyers didn't receive the advancement that they should have received, that the men in the practice would be preferred ahead of them; I'm sure that happened. Ah, and I've heard of many tales. Of course, the main way in which it did affect women was in relation to women employed as secretaries and clerks in legal firms because their rates were fixed again on the basic wage plus, and so their basic wage was too low. Even accounting for the change in the value of money, the amounts that secretaries and people in legal offices earn now would be in no proportion to what they earned in the days when I started to practice.

[end of tape]

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