Father’s Day was not immediately accepted when it was proposed, and it did not become a national holiday in the U.S. until 1972 during President Richard Nixon’s administration. Why was it a hotly contested debate? Read the forgotten history behind Father’s Day.
With America’s history, you might think that a holiday first recognizing men would be perfectly acceptable. After all, men dominated American society in the early 20th century. In addition, a “Father’s Day” or day that recognizes the role of fathers in the family is an ancient tradition. In history books, there is mention of a Southern European tradition dating back to 1508.
Certainly, in modern days, we do not give Father’s Day a second thought. It’s been almost 50 years since President Richard Nixon’s administration declared the third Sunday in June a dedicated day to recognize and honor the role of fathers in society.
Father’s Day Controversy
However, Father’s Day was not immediately accepted when it was proposed. Why not?
Mother’s Day came first (officially recognized in 1914) so men in the early 1900s associated the day with women and found it too effeminate to their liking. To be fair, Mother’s Day was couched in terms of femininity. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson called Mother’s Day a way to recognize “that tender, gentle army—the mothers of America.”
Men viewed it as similar to Mother’s Day, which was popular with florists; fathers didn’t have the same sentimental appeal. As one historian writes, they “scoffed at the holiday’s sentimental attempts to domesticate manliness with flowers and gift-giving, or they derided the proliferation of such holidays as a commercial gimmick to sell more products–often paid for by the father himself.”
Also, according to Lawrence R. Samuel, the author of American Fatherhood: A Cultural History, men had a different role in the first half of a century. It was very patriarchal, so they felt that a special day to exalt fatherhood was a rather silly idea, when it was mothers who were underappreciated.
However, that sentiment changed over time for several reasons.
The Women Behind Father’s Day
Grace Golden Clayton
The first known Father’s Day service occurred in Fairmont, West Virginia, on July 5, 1908, after hundreds of men died in the worst mining accident in U.S. history.
Grace Golden Clayton, the daughter of a dedicated reverend, proposed a service to honor all fathers, especially those who had died. However, the observance did not become an annual event, and it was not promoted—very few outside the local area knew about it. Meanwhile, across the entire country, another woman was inspired to honor fathers …
Sonora Smart Dodd
In 1909, Sonora Smart Dodd of Spokane, Washington, was inspired by Anna Jarvis and the idea of Mother’s Day. Her father was a single parent who raised Sonora and her five brothers by himself, after his wife Ellen, died giving birth to their youngest child in 1898. William Jackson Smart, her father, was a farmer and Civil War veteran as well. While attending a Mother’s Day church service in 1909, Sonora, then 27, came up with the idea.
Within a few months, Sonora had convinced the Spokane Ministerial Association and the YMCA to set aside a Sunday in June to celebrate fathers. She proposed June 5, her father’s birthday, but the ministers chose the third Sunday in June so that they would have more time after Mother’s Day (the second Sunday in May) to prepare their sermons. So it was held on June 19, 1910, when Sonora delivered presents to handicapped fathers, boys from the YMCA decorated their lapels with fresh-cut roses (red for living fathers, white for the deceased), and the city’s ministers devoted their homilies to fatherhood.
Becoming a National Holiday
The widely publicized events in Spokane struck a chord that reached all the way to Washington, D.C., and Sonora’s celebration started its path to becoming a national holiday. The holiday did not catch on right away, perhaps due to the parallels with Mother’s Day.
- In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson and his family personally observed the day.
- Eight years later, President Calvin Coolidge signed a resolution in favor of Father’s Day “to establish more intimate relations between fathers and their children and to impress upon fathers the full measure of their obligations.”
- In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed an executive order that the holiday be celebrated on the third Sunday in June.
- Under President Richard Nixon, in 1972, Congress passed an act officially making Father’s Day a national holiday. (Six years later, Sonora died at age 96.)
Commercialism and the Economy
A couple other economic reasons pushed Father’s Day forward:
- The Great Depression happened. The economy needed help as everyone was pinching their pennies. Father’s Day was employed by struggling stores as an excuse to get fathers some of the clothing and material goods they needed. It was a reason to get dad that necktie or pair of socks, which he may not buy for himself.
- World War II occurred. Men were on the front lines. The desire to support American troops and the war effort provided another reason to support and show appreciation for dads.
The Changing Role of Fathers
The idea of fatherhood changed as well. It’s not the “feminine model” with flowers, but more so a day that celebrates what the sterotypical dad likes to do, whether it’s going fishing or flying or go-carting! It’s focused on the greater roles dads play with their children.
Partly, this change due to the way society has also evolved. There are no longer armies of drone workers toiling away in industrial factories, while we spend hours handstitching and handwashing all of our clothes. The modern role of father has changed so that mothers and fathers are partners, each taking more responsibily within family life.
The value of fatherhood is critical, as we now know from so many studies what happens when a father figure is lacking. In a sense, today’s Father’s Day can play a role in stressing the importance and value of fatherhood—and the gifts that a father in the family bestows on his children. See 5 important ways fathers impact child development.
Different Days for Different Dads
North America is not the only place where Father’s Day is celebrated, of course.
- In traditionally Catholic countries such as Spain and Portugal, Father’s Day is observed on March 19, the Feast of St. Joseph.
- Taiwanese celebrate Father’s Day on August 8, the eighth day of the eighth month, because the Mandarin Chinese word for eight sounds like the word for “Papa.”
- In Thailand, Father’s Day is celebrated on former King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s birthday, December 5.
Find out ways celebrate Father’s Day’s day at our main Father’s Day page! You’ll also find quotes and recipes that are perfect for the holiday.
How do you celebrate Father’s Day? Let us know in the comments!