”As soon as we got accustomed to our work, the difference of sex had no bearing on our decisions. But it is doubtful if anyone else, besides ourselves, realized this.
”. . .undoubtedly clear to the end, the people of Arizona credited my male colleagues with all paroles denied and held me responsible for every parole granted.”— Elsie Toles, commenting on her two years on the State Parole Board
in an April 1965 interview in True West magazine
Elsie Toles, Arizona’s first woman superintendent of public instruction, was ready for the job when she began her statewide campaign in 1920. But she wasn’t ready for was “the dark responsibility victory would carry with it,” the life-or-death responsibility she would assume as a member of the State Parole Board.
By a quirk in state law, the superintendent of public instruction was automatically a member of five boards, including the parole board.
”Campaigning through the lovely golden days of an Arizona fall, I enjoyed the prospect of the top job in school work, with the added excitement of trying my hand at things that only men had done,” she recalled years later. Her full responsibilities did not hit home until she received a postcard from a death-row prisoner in the state prison in Florence. His message read: “Please save my life. I am sentenced to be hanged September ninth.”
”Receiving that was a terrific shock,” Elsie Toles said in an interview with Phyllis W. Heald for True West magazine in 1965. “For the first time I actually realized that in my new position I would have the power to send a human being to his death.” With the passing months, Miss Toles learned just how hard the job was. Each plea for mercy was aimed at her, and all followed essentially the same theme: A woman wouldn’t condemn a man to die. A woman wouldn’t let a man stay in prison. A woman would understand. Her only recourse was to strive for justice and mercy and reject sentimentality, she said.
And the prisoner who wrote the postcard? ”There was no choice,” she said. “He was guilty. He paid the penalty. But I’ll never forget the day we faced him across the parole board table …”
Born in Bisbee on September 19, 1888, Elsie grew up hearing her parents’ and grandparents’ hair-raising stories of Apache raids, stage hold-ups and early-day life in the Cochise County mining camp. She was one of four girls that made up Bisbee High School’s first graduating class. Later she attended Pomona College in California for one year before her mother died, forcing her to temporarily give up her studies. She returned home to care for her 12-year-old sister, Myriam and 8-year-old brother, Silas.
She had, however, received her teaching credentials from State Normal School at San Jose, California, and was able to teach for two years at Bisbee before taking her brother and sister with her for a year of specialized studies in education at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Returning to Arizona, she taught for another year in Bisbee and two years in Douglas.
At that point in her career, the Cochise County Republican Party talked her into running for county superintendent of public instruction. Although she was a candidate in a strongly Democratic county, she won, because, as her sister said, “she was a native daughter … with well-known qualifications.”
Elsie Toles held the post for two terms and spent four years supervising rural schools. It was “a formidable task that meant driving over dirt roads in a Model T Ford,” she later recalled.
”I carried tools to repair and inflate a flat tire and also a five gallon emergency can of gas …”
One school was perched on top of a mountain at the end of a winding road. The gas tank, located beneath the car’s front seat, was lower than the carburetor when she tried to drive up the steep mountain. So the only way she could get to the school was to drive backwards for three miles.
All the schools were plagued by a lack of trained teachers, poor equipment and ramshackle buildings. They were as poverty-stricken as the homesteaders they served, Miss Toles observed. Added to these problems was the fact that some of the school board members tried to use the school as a place to settle personal grudges. In one such instance, recalled Elsie’s sister Myriam, Elsie refused to fire a teacher who had managed to get on the bad side of a board member.
”So he burned down the school house and gleefully announced that the teacher would now have to leave,” Myriam said. “Elsie decided that since the teacher had a contract and had violated no law, the board would have to pay her salary for the rest of the year. There were no more fires.”
Elsie Toles is credited with starting a school health service in Cochise County. At the state level, she initiated a long-range program to raise teacher certification standards. She also worked to increase financial-aid for schools, particularly rural ones, and supported a movement to make the state superintendent of public instruction an appointed position.
In 1923, at the end of her term in state office, she completed work on her master’s degree at the University of California in Berkeley and taught as a demonstration teacher for two years. Later she became a professor of education at San Jose College, a position she held for 17 years.
During World War II, Elsie Toles helped establish child-care centers for mothers working in California’s war production plants. After her retirement in 1945, she co-authored with her sister two children’s books, Adventures in Apacheland and The Secret of Lonesome Valley.
She died in Douglas August 29, 1957, at the age of 69.