Modern Father’s Day is uniquely American in its history. Together with Mother’s Day, it is both a public and personal expression of the gratitude that is due to all caring parents.
Why, then, has Mother’s Day been a national holiday for almost a century, while Father’s Day received that recognition only decades ago?
The proposals for a Father’s Day and Mother’s Dayfor time set aside for children to honor their parentswas introduced to American culture at about the same time. (Mother’s Day was originally suggested in 1872 by Julia Ward Howe, author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but she envisioned it as a day for women to protest against war.) The first celebration of Father’s Day occurred in Spokane, Wash., on June 19, 1910. This was two years after the schoolteacher Anna M. Jarvis began campaigning from Philadelphia to establish a nationwide Mother’s Day.
Sonora Louise Smart Dodd conceived the idea for Father’s Day in 1909 while listening to a sermon endorsing the concept of a Mother’s Day. Dodd’s father, William Jackson Smart, had raised six children by himself after his wife died in childbirth. So strong was her desire to honor his strength of character and devotion that Father’s Day was intended to fall on his birthday, June 5, but it had to be postponed. A following Sunday was chosen because Dodd’s vision of Father’s Day included a religious service dedicated to fathers during which they would receive small gifts from their children.
Roses were chosen as the official flower of the first Father’s Day, with white flowers to remember fathers who had died and red ones to honor the living. (That tradition persists.) Both the mayor of Spokane and the governor of Washington quickly endorsed Father’s Day. In that same year, 1910, West Virginia became the first state to proclaim a Mother’s Day. By 1911, however, almost every state embraced that celebration. In 1913, in the wake of a unanimous resolution from the House of Representatives that requested government officials wear white carnations on Mother’s Day, President Woodrow Wilson declared, “the second Sunday in May as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.”
Mother’s Day was a national holiday, but despite support from newspapers and from prominent political figures, Father’s Day did not gain similar momentum. A number of independent ‘reinventions’ of the idea attested to its popular appeal, however. For example, Harry C. Meek, a president of Chicago’s Lions Club, is sometimes called the “Originator of Father’s Day” because of his vigorous support for the idea that dated from the 1920s.
In an amazing co-incidence, Meek chose June 20 as Father’s Day, probably because that date was his birthday.
If it was popular, why were lobbying attempts to formalize Father’s Day unsuccessful? The inertia was not due to lack of sympathy. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson observed a private Father’s Day with his family. In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed a Father’s Day resolution to “establish more intimate relations between fathers and their children and to impress upon fathers the full measure of their obligations.”
Coolidge recommended “the widespread observance” of Father’s Day but he did not declare it a national holiday, as Wilson had done with Mother’s Day. That recognition would take almost five decades. Meanwhile, Father’s Day continued to be widely celebrated without being formalized.
A plausible theory of why the two observances were treated differently is that members of the House of Representatives thought that granting recognition to mothers was gallant but giving the same nod to their own sex looked self-serving. A more disturbing theory is that, even then, the role of fatherhood was undervalued. Indeed, it may have been seen as a slight to mothers and, so, politically unwise to treat the two parents as equivalently important.
Whatever the reason, the path to establishing Father’s Day as a permanent national holiday was arduous. In 1926, a National Father’s Day Committee was formed in New York City, but it was not until 1956 that the next significant step forward occurred: Father’s Day was recognized by a joint resolution of Congress.
The next year, Sen. Margaret Chase Smith made an impassioned appeal for Congress to take the next step and formalize Father’s Day. Smith wrote: “The Congress has been guilty now for forty years of the worst possible oversight ... against the gallant fathers ... of our land.... Either we honor both our parents, mother and father, or let us desist from honoring either one ... But to single out just one of our two parents and omit the other is the most grievous insult imaginable.”
The “grievous” insult continued until 1966 when President Lyndon Johnson signed a presidential proclamation declaring that the third Sunday of June 1966 would be recognized as Father’s Day. It would take six more years before President Richard Nixon established Father’s Day as a permanent national holiday to be observed on the third Sunday of June every year.
America should be richly applauded for pioneering a day on which families recognize fathers. And, if Father’s Day took longer to receive the public acknowledgement it deserved, perhaps this can be a reminder of how easy it is, even for those with good intentions, to overlook the importance of fatherhood.
Wendy McElroy is a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute and her books include the Independent Institute volumes, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century, and Freedom, Feminism, and the State.
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