Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Josefa (Mrs. Shelley) Tolhurst, 1864-1956
By Kevin Sun, History and Sociology Major, University of California Santa Barbara
Vice President and President for two terms of the Friday Morning Club of Los Angeles; Women's Society for Political Study; National Advisory Council Representative of the National Woman's Party; Chairman of the Speaker's Committee of the Political Equality League; Vice President of the Women's Suffrage League; Director of the Los Angeles City Library; Member of Board of Freeholders.
Josefa Hodgman was born in 1864 in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Edwin and Laura Hodgman. She completed four years of college and married Shelley Tolhurst in 1885 and by 1900 they were living in Los Angeles, where she remained for the rest of her life. Shelley Tolhurst worked as a dentist in 1900 and lived off his own income a decade later. The couple had one child, Louis, born in 1887.
While little is known about Josefa's education, she was no doubt educated and fiercely intellectual. She was a skilled orator, accomplished writer and an effective organizer and was known for her crisp and epigrammatic manner of speaking. This was especially important since there were few women activists comfortable with speaking to the public and in groups at the time, so she often bore most of the speaking burden in the organizations she belonged to.
Tolhurst began her suffragist career in the 1890s and assumed leadership positions in the suffrage movement in 1900 with the resurgence of women suffrage leagues in Southern California. Activist work in Southern California had ground to a halt after the defeat of women's suffrage in the 1896 ballot, but at the end of 1900 a meeting was called at the Women's Club House in Los Angeles to revive the Women's Suffrage League. A committee was quickly formed, and Tolhurst was selected to serve as the vice president of the organization. Many other organizations and groups were eventually formed, many of which Tolhurst participated in, and while these earlier organizations did not achieve their goals immediately, they kept the the movement alive as they prepared for one last giant push in 1910 and 1911.
In the first decade of the 1900s, Tolhurst was very active in the Friday Morning Club. This woman's club was the largest in California and sought to be a center of education and discussion for women, as well as advancing the social and political position of women. Tolhurst hosted numerous meetings at the Women's Club House as a member of the Friday Morning Club. This included the Sixth Biennial in 1902 where numerous prominent suffragists from throughout the United States gathered. She served as the vice president of the club and also served two terms as the president in 1900-1903 and 1907-1909. During this time, she fought for the establishment of the electoral reforms--Initiative, Referendum, Recall. This legislation would provide more tools for suffragists by allowing them to gather signatures and place proposed legislation on the ballot themselves.
When 1910 came around, Tolhurst served as the Chairman of the Speakers Committee of the Political Equality League (PEL) and helped the massive push for suffrage. After realizing the Bay Area would likely vote against women's suffrage, the PEL decided to focus the majority of its efforts and resources in Los Angeles County to sway crucial votes. Tolhurst spoke directly to the judiciary committee of the Senate and closed the appeal when the PEL was granted a hearing for women's suffrage. She also co-authored numerous articles in 1911 that were published in the Los Angeles Times, a newspaper that had controversially published many sexist anti-suffrage articles in its editorial section. Tolhurst's efforts paid off when women's suffrage was passed in the 1911 ballot by less than four thousand votes. As projected, the Bay Area heavily opposed suffrage and the efforts of Tolhurst and the other women in Los Angeles were immensely vital.
After the successful fight for suffrage, Tolhurst continued to advocate for women's rights. She supported birth control and crusaded for wider work opportunities for women. She served as a member of the National Advisory Council of the National Woman's Party, representing California in 1920. She would eventually become director of the Los Angeles Public Library and serve as a member of the Board of Freeholders where she would assist in revising the Los Angeles city charter. For her remarkable record of community service, Tolhurst was awarded the title of President Emeritus by the Friday Morning Club, a title she would hold until her passing in 1956.
The Tolhursts continued to reside in Los Angeles in 1920, with Shelley now employed as the president of a land company. They owned their home without a mortgage and employed a black, live-in cook. Shelley passed away in the 1920s and the 1930 census found Josefa heading her household, which included her 94-year-old mother and three servants. She owned her home, valued now at $50,000. By 1940 her mother had passed away and she, now 75, lived with her daughter-in-law, two grandchildren, and a maid.
Josefa Tolhurst passed away in Los Angeles in April 1956. She was a passionate and talented suffragist and activist for women's rights. She played a vital role in obtaining suffrage for women in California and was fortunate enough to see many of her efforts succeed.
Anonymous. "The Sixth Biennial." The club woman: woman's world 9, no. 9 (1902): 321-343
Blatch, Harriot Stanton. "Document 18: Harriot Stanton Blatch to Cornelia Bryce Pinchot" 6 October 1920, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Cornelia Bryce Pinchot Papers, Box 10, NF. Included in "Cornelia Bryce Pinchot's Reform Activism, 1908-1929," Documents selected by Kathryn Kish Sklar and Corinne Weible. Women and Social Movements, 1600-2000 (Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street Press, 2011).
Harper, Ida Husted, ed. History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 6: 1900-1920. New York, NY: National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1922. [LINK]
Hubbell, Lee and Thelma and Lothrop, Gloria. "The Friday Morning Club: A Los Angeles Legacy." Southern California Quarterly 50, no. 1 (1968): 59-90.
"October 8 1911, Suffragists Step Up their Game in California." Feminist.org. Accessed on 4/28/2020. https://feminist.org/blog/index.php/2014/10/08/october-8-1911-suffragists-step-up-their-game-in-california/
"Social Diary and Gossip." Los Angeles Herald 32, No. 152, March. 2, 1905.
"WOMEN MUST SURPASS MEN." New York Times (New York, NY), 1899.
Federal manuscript censuses: Los Angeles, 1900-1940. Accessed via HeritageQuest.com.
Find-a-Grave death record for Josefa Tolhurst, April 1956.