A Daughter’s Fight for Father’s Day & Why It Made Men Grumble

A day for Dear Old Dad, created by Daughter.

It wasn’t long after Mother’s Day had begun that Father’s Day was sure to follow.

In fact the first holiday directly inspired the second.  And like the first, it was a woman who got i off the ground.

Sonora Dodd, Mother of Father’s Day.

On Mother’s Day in 1909, while listening to the Reverend Dr. Henry Rasmussen at Central United Methodist Church in Spokane, Washington pontificate on the need to keep holy the love of all mothers, 28 year-old Sonora Louise Smart Dodd got a bit steamed. “I liked everything you said about motherhood,” she later recalled telling him. “However, don’t you think fathers deserve a place in the sun too?”

The Spokane home of Sonora Smart Dodd, her husband and son.

Then and there she determined that a special Sunday should be set aside to honor fathers for all they sacrificed on behalf of their children. Especially hers. The day for this special holiday she settled on? Daddy’s June 5 birthday.

Born in Arkansas, where her own mother Ellen had died when she was 16 years old, Sonora Louise felt lifelong gratitude towards her father, William Jackson Smart, a Civil War veteran of the Confederacy. As a widower, he raised his six children alone and lovingly.  A poet and artist, known for her series of children’s books, Children of the Sun,  about Native Americans, which she also illustrated, Mrs. Dodd could also pen a pretty pithy argument. She got to it.

Sonoroa Dodd’s original petition on behalf of the holiiday.

The commemorative stone once on the now-demolished YMCA Building where Ms. Dodd first argued for the holiday.

She composed an airtight case to set aside a June Sunday, annually, as Father’s Day, in the form of a petition. This she presented before a Spokane Ministerial Alliance meeting, held in the Spokane YMCA Building.

Dodd’s Dad, inspiration for a holiday.

Although she had the support of both Reverend Rasmussen and the pastor of her Old Centenary Presbyterian Church, the Ministerial Alliance didn’t feel they had enough time to prepare proper sermons on fathers in time for her father’s birthday.

Two weeks later, however, on Sunday, June 19, 1910, her own pastor and those from several other area churches gave stirring speeches recognizing the role of men as parents. It marked the first Father’s Day.

A Father’s Day supper in Spokane not long after Sonora Dodd started the holiday.

By the following year,. Mrs. Dodd had seen the Mayor of Spokane and corresponded with the Governor of Washington, coaxing both to issue Father’s Day proclamations.

She concocted a unique tradition: every Father’s Day she convinced a young women’s group in her church to carry baskets of red and white roses for congregants entering the building, and hand out red roses to fathers and white roses to those people whose fathers had died. After the services, she got in her buggy and brought Father’s Day gifts to fathers who were disabled or otherwise unable to get out.

Early 20th century Father’s Day card.

Mrs. Dodd hadn’t been the only one with just such an idea, but she was the driving force to get an annual Father’s Day holiday officially sanctioned and celebrated, not just in Spokane’s Protestant churches but throughout all demographics of American society.

She bore down on her United States Senator,Clarence Dill, and got President Woodrow Wilson to officially open Father’s Day services in Spokane in 1916 by telephone, from the Oval Office.

Two of Woodrow Wilson’s three daughters, Jessie and Nell. All three devotedly doted on dad.

Wilson, who had made Mother’s Day official and had three doting adult daughters, loved the idea and tried to match his record 2-for-2. But even the President’s passion for it couldn’t overcome the brick wall that the idea of a Father’s Day began to get.

Within just three years of the first Father’s Day, Mrs. Dodd had made fast headway for the new holiday by managing to have a bill  introduced in Congress. But there, it languished, getting some reluctant nods and  just sort of pushed around the conversations. There was zero in the way of impassioned support. The prevailing attitude was that such sweet attention was just dandy for the nation’s long-suffering mothers, just the sort of melodrama made for a woman but that red-blooded American men like themselves would become all self-consciously riled up if women and children were to dare get emotional about them. For the Congressional Record, however, the reliable excuse those high-minded men of  Congress gave for opposing Father’s Day was that it would just be commercialized and thus do more to dishonor dads than honor them.

Sonora Dodd decided to make her case before the American people by going out on the lecture circuit to organizations she thought had the most vested interest in supporting the holiday. She was dead wrong.  Men hated it. “One group of men conventioneers laughed and said they didn’t want a Father’s Day,” according to  The Spokesman-Review. “A national fishing day would be better, they told her.”

Treachly, sentimental songs about Dads never had the emotional tug of those about mothers – and made most men cringe In fact, many old songs made fun of dads as lazy good-for-nothings.

She tried a different tact,  claiming that disrespect for fathers had infiltrated the entire pop culture, and she tried to prove her point by quoting the titles of popular sheet music and piano rolls, such as  Everybody Works But Father.  As one ornery fellow in one audience shouted out at her -and exploding his men’s club into guffaws and sneers, “No truer words were ever sung!” 

And by 1924, there was a man in the White House – without any daughters. 

President Coolidge and his sons.

“The widespread observance of this occasion is calculated to establish more intimate relations between fathers and their children,” read a dry, stiff statement from President Calvin Coolidge,”  and also to impress upon fathers the full measure of their obligations.”  Hardly a ringing endorsement, Coolidge refused to issue a national proclamation making Father’s Day official. Congress vetoed two more efforts.

By having this lovely Daughter of the Confederacy seek help of the most powerful demographic of the most powerful nation on earth, the infamous “white men,” so hissed at by later generations, in her effort to glorify them had Mrs. Dodd uncovered their hidden, inner self-esteem complex?

Mount Spokane.

It seemed so, for by the end of the Jazz Age, Sonora Louise Dodd had shifted her battle tactics to appeal to the more manly side of men. She got going on the governor again. In 1930, the name of Mt. Spokane at Mt. Spokane State Park was re-dedicated as “Father Mountain,” the perfect place for menfolk to take a hike for several days away from wives and daughters, and maybe let the boys tag along if they kept their traps shut.A rugged climb, it was no walk in the park.

The dandelion can still occasionally be found as a symbol of Father’s Day.

A year later, her delicate baskets of lovely red roses which women pinned on fathers each Father’s Day in church were dumped for good. Instead of a rose, the wild weed with the prickly and very small yellow flower took its place. Thus, the lowly dandelion became the unofficial Father’s Day flower, first suggested by a Men’s Bible Study group in Pennsylvania, because, “the more it is trampled on, the better it grows.”

And the following year, a new Father’s Day Monument was unveiled on Father Mountain, less the result of Chamber of Commerce approval and supportive telegrams from international groups already celebrating a Father’s Day in their nations, but the elbow grease and muscle power of a battalion of Federated Women’s Clubs.

The tie came early and never left as the odious standby Father’s Day gift.

After taking a spell from holiday hell by earning a degree at the Chicago Arts Institute, Mrs. Dobbs returned to Spokane in the 1930s, a lot savvier on how to get this thing off the ground. Instead of gentle intent, she used marketing and merchandizing.

In her determination to make Father’s Day a national holiday, Mrs. Dodd proved herself the Miss Smart she had never stopped being. She went to New York and hit up all the major manufacturers of Dad-type gifts, forever setting in stone the cursed ties and pipes that would uniformly cover Father’s Day cards for decades.

In 1938, she reached a turning point, having successfully helped forge “The Father’s Day Council,” which was funded and established by the New York Associated Men’s Wear Retailers, a wide consortium of men’s shirt, tie, suit, hat and shoe manufacturers.

The trade associations representing manufacturers of those products joined the bandwagon by advertising the perfect gifts for Dad to the public and lobbying Washington for official recognition of the holiday.

Advertisers did occasionally stray from pipes as the ideal Father’s Day gift – to pipe tobacco.

Radio shows, newspaper editors and the general public, however, balked. They saw it all as just another plot to make men shell out some dough to their kids, so the kids could waste it on useless gifts for them.

The almost universally-male choir of critics made their case: they didn’t need any more socks, they were trying to quit smoking pipes, and they could pick out ugly tie patterns on their own just fine.

Western Union got into the act for those who failed to send their Father’s Day cards in time, saying a telegram would reach dear old dad on his day..

For nearly fifty years, however, The Father’s Day Council was unrelenting. The first big break was convincing generic calendar printers to put a tie and pipe image on every third Sunday in June.

Now even mechanics in garages and dentists in offices couldn’t help maybe hoping to get a token little something they absolutely did not want.

Unquestionably, the biggest boost to establishing Father’s Day were the greeting cards that began dotting stationary shops no sooner than the last purple Mother’s Day five-stanza lilac motif card had been swept up.

Unlike Mother’s Day, however, the Father’s Day card industry had to use a bit more cleverness to outwit the man of the house.

If they might, by now, begin to gruffly peck a kiss in thanks for a pipe, anything sugary was sure to send Dad back into their caves cussing over the whole damned thing.

The ubiquitous pipe and fishing hooks.

The cards for Father’s Day all adhered to the mid-20th Century’s societal expectations of clearly-defined gender roles. There were no dads on Father’s Day cards from the Forties and Fifties, for example, doing any cooking except on the outdoor grill. But there was a slight, growing sense of, well, closeness. Dads were touched by the images meant to reflect them while fishing, smoking, and snoozing – even if they didn’t fish, smoke or sleep much.

Father’s Day cards were often tailored to be given by either sons or daughters.

Dads weren’t shown hugging and kissing their kids, but rather taking Jimmy out for a walk on a country lane or Tommy to a ball game or smiling over Cindy’s prom dress. They talked and they smiled. They didn’t hug and kiss. And the cheerful card companies began to slowly widen their specialized marketing with certain cards to be given by sons, and others from daughters.

Some credit the creative ingenuity of Father’s Day card makers for using a play on cards to create the first  Pop-up cards.

By the 60s cards were marketed to wives.

By the early Sixties, wives were even encouraged to remember their husbands on Father’s Day -even if they had no kids. The limericks and poems inside the cards were affable, caring and kind – but not too sweet – about Dear Old Dad.

Some even made jokes about Dad’s resistance to being acknowledged on Father’s Day.

Nobody wanted to see Dad cry, especially Dad.  By the late Fifties, what distinctly delineated the Father’s Day card from the Mother’s Day card was the humor and gag tone to them. Cracking jokes in printed form about Mother being sloppy would lead to the wrong kind of tears – but it relieved the pressure of overt love for Dads. Repression was still very much in and sold like hotcakes.

By 1983, the Father’s Day Council was happy to report that their holiday had finally turned into a “second Christmas for all the men’s gift-oriented industries.”

By then, Father’s Day had finally been recognized as a national holiday, but it had taken another woman, in 1957, to this time shame enough men for failing to give themselves credit as dads and, in the process, give women what they really wanted: Father’s Day.

Senator Margaret Chase Smith, fiery Father’s Day fan.

That year, Maine’s snappy Yankee U.S. Senator, Margaret Chase Smith penned an excoriating memo condemning her overwhelmingly male colleagues in Congress:

“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.”

It was the first known time in history that an elected woman official declared herself an advocate for men’s equal rights.

LBJ with his daughters Lynda, beside him, and Luci, behind him.

The veiled anti-Mother’s Day tactic seemed to catch a bit of fire, but the stalemate remained among those huddles gents of Congress. It took a man who lived only among women to find his hand signing on for Father’s Day, a President adored and admired by two daughters named Lynda Bird and Luci Baines.

In 1966, by presidential proclamation, Lyndon Johnson announced that the third Sunday of every June was officially Father’s Day.

It was another six years before Father’s Day got the status of Mother’s Day, when President Richard Nixon made it a permanent national holiday.

Mrs. Dodd lived until the age of 96.

It may be circumstantial that he too had no sons, but also two daughters like LBJ, Julie and Tricia.

At age 96, Mrs. Dodd died in 1978. Although by then she had been widowed for some forty years, she had a son who married and became a father, giving her the chance to send him a Father’s Day card and gift each year.

And each third Sunday in June, her one granddaughter sent Mrs. Dodd a card.

For Father’s Day.

Even Father’s Day ecards on the Internet are still sporting those ugly ties.


Categories: Advertising & Marketing, Father's Day, First Families, Presidents, The Coolidges, The Wilsons, U.S. Holidays

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3 replies »

  1. What a delightful story! I had no idea that Fathers’ Day became an official holiday that late. Jessie Wilson looked exactly like a female version of her dad!

    • And what a welcome and appreciated reaction – I almost didn’t post it, spending an entirely beautiful day inside thrashing it out – so your immediate reply at this late hour made it worth it. And yes Jessie Wilson did look like her dad, but was truly a beautiful woman, inside and out. I’m not sure that picture does her justice. She even escaped that sort of old-fashioned look so many people in photos did back then – she has a sort of timeless quality. And a good person too, progressive, honest. And a White House bride. Thanks again!

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