Stella Jane Marke
First Woman Lawyer (Nigeria)
By Kelvin Osakpolor Onile
Stella Jane Marke (neé Thomas), was born in 1906, to Nigerian businessman Peter Claudius Thomas and Josetta Mary Thomas. Hers was a family of pioneers; her father was the first African to head the Lagos Chamber of Commerce. Her brother, Peter Thomas following in his father’s footsteps of becoming a “first”, would go on to become the first African pilot commissioned in the Royal Air force during the Second World War.
Following the completion of her elementary education, Stella traveled to the United Kingdom in 1926 to Study Law at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. As a student at Oxford, she joined the West African Student Association (WASU), becoming an active member in the Union, thereby earning the title, Ogboni Agba – (esteemed elder), a distinguished form of recognition given by the union to outstanding members. Stella Marke became the first female to be bestowed that title by the union. In 1929, Stella was admitted into the Middle Temple Inn where she received her professional training up until her call to the English bar on the 10th of May 1933.
In October 1935, Stella Marke returned home to practice law, enrolling first at the Sierra Leonean Bar, and a month later, she returned to Nigeria where she was enrolled in November 1935. In Lagos, Stella set up her Law practice along Kakawa, Lagos Island. She worked on a wide range of legal matters ranging from criminal cases to family issues. Following seven successful years in legal practice, Stella was appointed as a magistrate in 1943, making her the first Nigerian woman to sit on the bench. She served in this capacity until her retirement in 1971.
Stella Jane Marke undoubtedly blazed the trail for Nigerian women lawyers, as the first in a long distinguished line. Through her tenacity and zeal, she demonstrated that women could bear the title Esquire (Esq.) in Nigeria – and West Africa, at a time when many thought it was not possible. Upon her call to the English Bar in 1933, making her the first woman lawyer in West Africa. The WASU celebrated her achievement with a printed announcement which read; “we are pleased to avail ourselves of the privilege to publish here, the first female Ogboni Agba, who recently passed her final Bar examination. Miss Thomas is to be the first lady Barrister in the whole of West Africa....”
Marke’s activism is underlined by her historic participation in a 1934 lecture delivered by Dame Margery Perham. Stella, the only African woman to participate in this discussion held at the Royal Society of Arts, delivered what many consider to be her greatest speech to date. She challenged the notion that Africans should not be involved or consulted in the process of seeking to resolve the problem of Africa. She criticized Lord Lugard’s dual mandate policy stating that it made puppets out of traditional rulers and chiefs. These words went on to gain traction among Nigerian Nationalists present at the event. Without a doubt, Stella’s speech has contributed, in more ways than one to the Nationalists’ struggle for the independence of Nigeria.
Stella’s achievements paved the way for women in the legal profession. Following an active career in law, she dedicated her retirement days to civil rights advocacy, activism, and the rights of women until her death in 1974. Her life and legacy blazed the trail in which others follow today. Mrs. Stella Jane Marke is indeed a pioneer.