The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Father’s Day once was highly political — and could become so again

The holiday’s lack of history allowed activists to give it meaning after America’s divorce laws changed

8 min

In many ways, Father’s Day has always been a second-class holiday in the United States.

Sonora Smart Dodd, whose father raised her and her siblings after their mother died in childbirth, was inspired to propose the holiday in 1910 after attending a church service honoring mothers. Even so, while federal law enshrined the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day in 1914, it took another half-century for fathers to receive similar recognition, first with Lyndon B. Johnson issuing a presidential proclamation in 1966 and then with Congress enacting an official holiday in 1972.

For decades, there was less political will to honor fathers, especially because many men regarded the holiday as “silly.” Such thinking continues to this day, as some men celebrate being fathers by using the holiday as a ticket to spend a day at the golf course, enjoying hours on “their” day away from their children.

This understanding of Father’s Day, though, misses the ways in which Americans have used the holiday as a political vehicle. In the latter decades of the 20th century, Father’s Day was a key battleground regarding parental rights and responsibilities for activists radicalized by the nation’s rapidly shifting familial landscape. At the root of this politicization of Father’s Day — maybe surprisingly — was the history of divorce.

The history of divorce in the United States dates to the colonial period. While the venues in which divorce cases took place changed over time, moving from state legislatures to the courts, the common denominator was that one spouse had to prove that the other spouse was at fault for the marital dissolution. The grounds for divorce varied by state, but often included adultery, desertion and cruelty.

While the United States had the highest divorce rate in the world in the late 19th century, the decision to divorce nevertheless remained a serious one — especially as divorced women frequently experienced financial hardships as well as a deep social stigma. Cases in which a spouse did not contest the divorce were common, but contested ones had the potential to become drawn-out and possibly even lead to media scandal. The majority of divorcing couples in the early to mid-20th century did not have children, but the “tender years doctrine” meant that in most cases, mothers retained custody of their minor children if they did.

By the mid-20th century, many Americans regarded this “fault” system as something of a joke. The public — and judges — knew that many divorcing couples colluded so as to have their cases fit the letter, if not the intent, of the law.

The entire landscape changed in 1969, with the advent of no-fault divorce. The initial idea behind the new laws was to make ending a marriage more honest and less acrimonious. Yet it had an unexpected consequence: a skyrocketing divorce rate.

No-fault divorce laws, however, did not deal with some of the most contested aspects of marital dissolution, especially questions about finances and child custody. Divorcing mothers and fathers alike developed critiques of the no-fault divorce system, which they believed perpetuated gender inequality and directly harmed their children.

The experience of divorce drew many White, middle-class women to the burgeoning women’s movement. Elizabeth Coxe Spalding, for example, was a mother of six and a proud Republican who served as the head of the National Organization for Women’s (NOW) Task Force on Marriage, Family Relations and Divorce in the mid-1970s. NOW had originally cheered the innovation of no-fault divorce laws, but quickly backtracked on that approval as they discovered the ramifications. Spalding received innumerable letters from divorced mothers who had left the workforce after becoming mothers and found themselves with few employable skills after their marriages ended.

These former housewives and newly single mothers — the vast majority of whom had custody of their children — also complained vociferously about their difficulties in collecting alimony (if awarded) and child support, further contributing to their precarious financial circumstances. They felt that their ex-husbands — the fathers of their children — took advantage of this legal landscape, maintaining their own personal standard of living while their children’s circumstances suffered dramatically.

Enter Father’s Day. As some feminists came to view child support enforcement as a key women’s issue, they turned to the new holiday as an opportunity to publicize their cause. In 1971, a group of women and children from the Association for Children Deprived of Support (ACDS) picketed the home of California assemblyman, and potential gubernatorial candidate, Robert Moretti on Father’s Day to press him to champion child-support reforms.

Several years later, in 1975, NOW chapters in Tulsa, Pittsburgh and Hartford, Conn., all participated in “Father’s Day Actions.” The Tulsa protesters promised, in a news release, that “Fathers who are not paying child support can expect that their names and the amounts they are in arrears will be announced” and publicly “displayed by mothers, children and concerned NOW members.” The Hartford women, for their part, laid a wreath at the door of the Superior Court of Connecticut to “mourn the loss of paternal responsibility by all the fathers involved in divorce, separation, and enforcement.”

Some divorced fathers, however, had their own political agenda for Father’s Day.

Fathers’ rights advocates objected to being used as “wallets” and claimed that their ex-wives purposely kept them from seeing their children in violation of visitation orders. In 1971, the National Council for Family Preservation — one of several failed attempts by fathers’ rights advocate Richard F. Doyle to form a robust national organization like NOW — urged its member groups to hold protests on the Saturday before Father’s Day, noting that fathers might “want to be elsewhere with their children on Sunday.” In a news release, Doyle called for the recognition of the “stupid and cruel divorce laws and practices that have made this holiday a mockery for countless fathers and children.”

By the 1980s, fathers’ rights groups across the country planned events and protests to mark the holiday, often focusing on calls for a legal presumption of joint custody. The New York Times reported in 1984 that more than 100 protesters, including men, women and children, had descended on Times Square in New York City carrying signs with slogans such as “I need to be more than a weekend Dad” and “A full-time father is the best child support.”

The Seattle-based organization Husbands Against Dirty Divorce (HADD) planned a Father’s Day brunch in 1986 to bring attention to the fact that the holiday was not accorded the same respect as the other spring holidays. They noted that Mother’s Day was “the number one holiday for the restaurant business, followed by Easter, while Father’s Day is way below bottom of the list.” That same year, the Ohio chapter of the National Congress of Men held a “joint custody awareness” event and picnic at their state capitol building in Columbus, with a concurrent event in Cincinnati, to mark the day.

The politicization of Father’s Day has subsided since the 1980s. Over time, lawmakers on the state and federal levels responded to the critiques of the no-fault divorce system that drove Father’s Day advocacy on both sides. New laws strengthened child support enforcement and joint custody became normalized — giving advocates for both divorced mothers and fathers what they most wanted.

Problems tied to support and custody haven’t disappeared, but these issues are no longer as polarizing and urgent as they seemed to the first generation of parents to experience no-fault divorce.

Yet the several decades that Father’s Day assumed significant political importance reveal that seemingly mundane cultural traditions can be reinvented as powerful political and cultural symbols. Sometimes, in fact, being mundane or banal offers up an opportunity. Because Father’s Day was an empty vessel, father’s rights activists and feminists, from opposite sides of the political-cultural spectrum, could fill it with their own meanings.

The tumult in gender roles, marital law and family structure that erupted in the 1960s and 1970s precipitated the politicization of Father’s Day. As the American family evolves and we continue to debate family and paternal roles in everything from education to reproductive rights to sexual identity, the continued relative lack of meaning of Father’s Day may enable the holiday to again become political.