On June 19, Father’s Day will be all about celebrating the dads in our lives. Yet, the history of holiday actually centers around one very persistent woman.
In 1910, an artist named Sonora Smart Dodd came up with the idea for Father’s Day, then embarked on a 62-year journey for the holiday to be nationally. Ultimately, she succeeded, and was forever christened “The Mother of Father’s Day.”
Dodd passed away in 1978 at age 96, but her family kept all the newspaper clippings, photos and relics of her remarkable journey. Betsy Roddy, her great granddaughter, said she frequently used to visit Dodd at her home in Spokane, Washington when she was still alive.
“She always had a light in her eye, and I always knew that her work and her life was a part of my family legacy,” said Roddy, 60, who began studying and archiving Dodd’s life in 2019. “Now, I have notebooks and notebooks of records with amazing details I didn’t know before.”
Her father was the spark.
Dodd’s interest in a Father’s Day began in her childhood, according to Roddy.
Born in 1882, Dodd grew up predominantly in rural Washington state. Her father, William Jackson Smart, worked as a farmer.
When Dodd was 16, her mother, Elizabeth, died in childbirth, leaving behind William, Dodd and her five younger brothers. At the time, fathers were not considered a critical part of the family fabric, explained Roddy. Motherless children were typically sent to live with extended family. But, remarkably, William took on the traditional maternal role and raised all of his children into adulthood.
Dodd never forgot it. In a 1964 interview, Dodd said, “Father assumed the role of father-mother in the rearing of his six children. This role he performed with courage and selflessness until we were all in homes of our own.”
A growing movement.
In 1905, Dodd married a blacksmith. The couple moved to Spokane, Wash. and had a son together.
Though it wouldn’t become a national holiday for another decade, Mother’s Day was increasing in popularity at the time, and Dodd attended the celebrations.
“She completely supported Mother’s Day, but she felt like fathers deserved a place in the sun, too,” Roddy said.
With support from her minister, Dodd quickly and successfully lobbied the Washington State governor in 1910, making Father’s Day a statewide holiday every third Sunday in June.
During that first Father’s Day, Dodd rode around town in a horse-drawn carriage, delivering gifts to fathers who couldn’t attend festivities, according to Roddy.
It wasn’t long before newspapers picked up on the holiday, increasing its traction across the country. Dodd even garnered some Congressional support, and a Father’s Day National Committee was formed. But, in 1913, a national bill failed to get off the ground. Two more bill attempts failed in the 1960s, even though Americans were already celebrating.
“Fathers were really dismissed as being drunk, distant or sleazy for a long time,” said Roddy. “So, it was hard for people to get on board with the idea.”
Ahead of her time.
When she wasn’t tussling with the White House, Dodd was nurturing a diverse creative career. She earned her high school diploma at age 44 while attending the same school as her son. She studied sculpture at the Chicago Art Institute, and wrote ad copy for newspapers. In 1929, she worked in Hollywood as a dress designer.
“She was an artist, a poet, she was a designer, a businesswoman. Really, she was way ahead of her time,” said Roddy.
But Dodd was becoming increasingly renowned for her Father’s Day advocacy. She received monuments in Spokane, she traveled to New York to mingle with wealthy political donors, and she received an honor at the 1940 World’s Fair.
As the holiday grew in popularity, so did its largesse. Unlike the founder of Mother’s Day, who opposed commercialization, Dodd embraced it. In one 1965 newspaper interview collected by Roddy, Dodd said: “It was my idea back in 1909 that gifts be given to the father. I even made the suggestion to merchants that they display them in their windows. After all, why should the greatest givers of gifts not be on the receiving end at least once a year.”
It clearly worked. Father’s Day spending hit $20.1 billion in 2021, according to the National Retail Federation.
Finally, in 1970, the U.S. Congress voted in favor of a nationally recognized Father’s Day in June. President Richard Nixon signed a proclamation in 1972 beginning with the statement: “To have a father—to be a father—is to come very near the heart of life itself.”
Dodd received honors and accolades for Father’s Day until her death six years later.
Roddy said that being the great-granddaughter of the woman who inspired Father’s Day is a fun fact to mention at parties. But, her admiration for Dodd runs deeper than that.
“I’m happy to say that we’ve shifted dramatically on how we view fathers since she started,” said Roddy. “She was really an amazing woman, if you think about the times she lived in. And she also had a wonderful father. I was also lucky to have an amazing father and grandfather. The standard is very high in the family.”
For 35 years, Roddy worked in technology marketing. But, she recently sold her house and began living a nomadic lifestyle while pursuing equestrianship, her true passion. She credited Dodd for her self-determination.
“She would encourage me,” said Roddy. “She would say: ‘be and do whatever you want to do and be.’ And she lived her life that way.”