Joseph Hodgens was born at Waimea South, Nelson, on 5 January 1887. His mother was Mary Ann Hodgens; his father's name is not known. After attending the Boys' Central School, Nelson, Joe served a carpentry apprenticeship at a sash and door factory; he was also an enthusiastic cricketer. By 1908 he was in Palmerston North, where he worked as a carpenter for Sollitt Brothers, and later established a successful business as a building contractor. On 19 April 1909, at St Patrick's Catholic Church, Palmerston North, Hodgens married Catherine Birch.
Possibly influenced by his relative, Pat Hickey, a leader of the New Zealand Federation of Labour, Joe Hodgens became active in the labour movement. By 1913 he was secretary of the Palmerston North branch of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners. He was a delegate to the Unity Congress in July 1913, served on the national executive of the Social Democratic Party in 1915–16, and attended the labour movement's anti-conscription conference in January 1916. He supported the formation of the New Zealand Labour Party in July that year, and in April 1917 became the first chairman of the Palmerston North Labour Representation Committee (LRC).
In April 1919 Joe Hodgens was elected the first Labour member of the Palmerston North Borough Council. The local labour movement was divided between a moderate reformist group, led by Hodgens, and a radical socialist faction associated with Roderick Ross. Among other things, they clashed over land policy: the moderates sought a land programme that would attract the votes of small farmers; Ross and his followers advocated nationalisation. In 1921 Hodgens broke with the LRC, now run by Ross, and withdrew from the council elections. At the 1922 general election he stood as one of two rival labour candidates in the Palmerston electorate; the Reform Party's J. A. Nash won.
By 1923 Hodgens and his supporters had regained control of the LRC, and in April that year he was re-elected to the borough council. A lengthy career in local politics followed: he served on the council until 1944, and was deputy mayor from 1931 to 1936. He was a member of the Manawatu–Oroua Electric Power Board from 1925 to 1941 and again from 1947 to 1955, and served on the Palmerston North river and fire boards, and on local school and licensing committees. From 1933 to 1955 he was a member of the Palmerston North Hospital Board. While he was chairman of its social welfare committee, his personal concern for the elderly and indigent during the harsh years of the depression won him many admirers. He also earned a reputation as a sympathetic employer. An active member of St Patrick's parish, Hodgens took a keen interest in Catholic education, and continued to educate himself through the Workers' Educational Association.
Hodgens unsuccessfully contested the Palmerston seat for the Labour Party in 1931. Old tensions resurfaced in 1933–34, however, when a left-wing faction in the party's Palmerston North branch disputed Hodgens's nomination for the forthcoming general election, and also defied party policy by allowing the local secretary of the Friends of the Soviet Union to speak and distribute literature at a branch meeting. Labour's leader, Michael Joseph Savage, backed Hodgens, and in December 1934 the party's national executive disbanded the branch and suspended the local LRC. As Labour swept to power in 1935, Hodgens won a tight three-way contest against Nash and A. E. Mansford, the city's mayor. Three years later his majority soared to over 2,000 votes.
A moderate and pragmatic man, Hodgens's commitment to socialism was sentimental rather than theoretical; like Labour's leaders, he sought to abolish poverty, not capitalism. He was one of Savage's strongest supporters in the Labour caucus, and the two men became close personal friends. Along with fellow MPs Charles Barrell and Alexander Moncur, Hodgens regularly reported to the prime minister on the activities of back-bench dissidents. Although a minor figure in policy making, he was a lively and assertive debater, and served as chairman of the Commerce and Industries Committee. He was a strong advocate of Labour's state housing programme, and travelled to Australia in early 1939 to recruit 400 skilled tradesmen.
In November 1946, as his wife's health deteriorated, Joe Hodgens retired from Parliament. Catherine died in January 1948; there were no children of the marriage. In 1950 Hodgens was elected to the Wellington Harbour Board. The following year he was persuaded to stand again for the Palmerston North seat at the general election. Despite the Holland government's landslide victory, Hodgens pipped National's W. B. Tennent by two votes on election night, before losing on a recount. Although he continued to serve on the hospital, power and harbour boards, in his last years 'Old Joe' devoted much of his time to his garden. He died at his Palmerston North home on 12 January 1955.
Genial and forthright, Joe Hodgens was widely admired for his generosity, integrity and gentle humour. Like other provincial Labour MPs, he was successful in business, prominent in local affairs, and appealed to voters across class lines. His political career reflected the emergence of the Labour Party into the mainstream of New Zealand politics.