CultureExplainer

Enjoy Father's Day? Thank the woman who spent 62 years campaigning for it.

What began as one woman's tribute to her dad, turned into a life-long mission for a day to celebrate all fathers.

Every year, on the third Sunday in June, Americans take time to honor fathers and their role in the family and community.

Although 76 percent of Americans plan to celebrate their fathers this year, few know about the woman who launched a 62-year campaign to establish the day as a federal holiday.

The mother of Father’s Day

When Sonora Louise Smart Dodd was 16 years old, her father became a widower and was left to raise Dodd and her five younger brothers alone. In 1909, Dodd was listening to a Mother’s Day sermon when she realized the need for a day to celebrate fathers, especially her own. (See Nat Geo photographers share poignant pictures of their fathers.)

Inspired, Dodd drew up a petition for the first Father’s Day, which she argued should be celebrated on her father’s birthday in early June. Even though the petition only earned two signatures, Dodd convinced several local church communities to participate—on the condition she push the date to late June to give them more time to prepare. The resulting celebration, in Spokane, Washington, kicked off Dodd’s nearly life-long mission of promoting Father’s Day for national status. Over the next half-century, Dodd would travel the United States, speaking on behalf of Father’s Day and campaigning for the cause.

Although Mother’s Day was declared a national holiday in 1914, Father’s Day wasn’t nationally recognized until 1972. Throughout the years, Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, and Lyndon B. Johnson all wrote in favor of the holiday, but none passed legislation ratifying the holiday during their term. In 1970, Congress finally passed Joint Resolution 187, which called on citizens to “offer public and private expressions of such day to the abiding love and gratitude which they bear for their fathers.” President Richard Nixon signed the resolution into law two years later.

A new appreciation of fatherhood

On the first Father’s Day in Spokane, families honored fathers by wearing roses—red for those still alive, and white for those who were deceased. Pastors in Presbyterian and Methodist churches gave Father’s Day sermons. The city’s mayor and even the state’s governor issued Father’s Day proclamations.

Today, Father’s Day is often celebrated with food, gatherings, and gifts. This year, Americans are expected to spend $16 billion for Father’s Day, with the most popular gifts being greeting cards, special outings, and clothing, according to the National Retail Federation. (Learn why most dads are okay recieving less for Father's Day.)

Since Father’s Day was first conceived, the nature of fatherhood itself has shifted. Most fathers are no longer the sole breadwinners and have become more involved in family life. Today, American fathers spend an average of eight hours a week on childcare—nearly three times as many hours as they did in 1965. However, less than half of American fathers believe they are doing a “very good job” raising their children.

Fatherhood has, and continues to be, both a demanding and gratifying endeavor. Father’s Day is an occasion to thank every person who has embraced the challenging role. “If the father's responsibilities are many, his rewards are also great—the love, appreciation, and respect of children and spouse,” wrote President Lyndon B. Johnson.