American fatherhood has been redefined in the years since Father’s Day took shape, but the idea behind the holiday stays the same.
Father’s Day was proposed around the same time as Mother’s Day, in the early 20th century, when a woman named Sonora Louise Smart Dodd wanted to honor her father, William Smart, a Civil War veteran who was left to raise six children after his wife died during childbirth. According to the National Father’s Day Committee, the first Father’s Day was celebrated in Dodd’s town of Spokane, Wash., in 1910. The holiday’s June date is tied to Smart’s birthday of June 5.
That was just two years after the first Mother’s Day, which had been proposed by Anna M. Jarvis, took place in 1908. But, while “Mother’s Day took off like a rocket, Father’s Day took off like a rock,” according to Ralph LaRossa, author of The Modernization of Fatherhood and sociology professor at Georgia State University.
“Mother’s Day was to convey that mothers were particularly special, but it seemed to some that it was antithetical to say fathers were special as well,” LaRossa says.
Six years after its first celebration, Mother’s Day was acknowledged by President Woodrow Wilson, who signed a proclamation on May 9, 1914, declaring the second Sunday of May “a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.” Father’s Day hardly got the same treatment: in 1916, Wilson simply pressed a button in the Oval Office that rolled out a flag in Washington at a Father’s Day celebration. Similarly, President Calvin Coolidge wouldn’t sign a proclamation in 1924, even though he suggested the holiday be observed nationwide.
There was pushback, though, says LaRossa. For example, one man named Robert Spero proposed that, instead of adding a day for dads, Mother’s Day be replaced with a Parents’ Day that acknowledging both parents. “We should all have love for dad and mother every day, but Parent’s Day on the second Sunday in May is a reminder that both parents should be loved and respected together,” Spere, who was known as Uncle Robert, told the New York Times in 1931. Parents’ Day rallies, however, didn’t make their way out of the 1940s.
And as the role of fathers transformed across America, the Father’s Day holiday eventually earned its place alongside Mother’s Day. In 1972, Father’s Day was given the recognition of a proclamation from Richard Nixon.