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Sonora Dodd: ‘Honour your Father and Mother’

Have you ever wondered how Mother’s Day and Father’s Day started?

According to an article in the Australian Women’s Weekly on 7 May 1969, Mrs Janet Heyden of Strathfield in Sydney was responsible for the introduction and promotion of both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in Australia.

Back in 1923, Janet Heyden had been concerned for the lonely, forgotten, and aged mothers in a local hospital – so she took action, encouraging people to care for them and celebrate mothers everywhere. And as the success of Mother’s Day grew, she also turned her attention to the men who needed to be cared for in our society, starting a campaign for Father’s Day to be celebrated in Australia, too.

Today, around 72 countries celebrate this event on the third Sunday in June. In Australia, Mother’s Day is celebrated on the second Sunday in May, and Father’s Day is on the first Sunday in September.

But Mother’s Day and Father’s Day had already been celebrated in the United States of America for more than a decade before Janet Heyden started them in Australia. And just like Janet Heyden, the American woman who started the celebration of Father’s Day was a person who cared deeply for others.

In 1909, John and Sonora Dodd attended the Mother’s Day service at their church. As Sonora listened to the sermon and heard what the Bible has to say about how wonderful mothers and motherhood are, her mind went back to her childhood. She thought about how important fathers are in raising children – and that’s when she thought of the idea of Father’s Day.

Sonora’s father, William, was an ex-soldier who had fought in the American Civil War. When William’s wife died giving birth to her sixth child, Sonora was only sixteen. Having just lost her mother, she now had to look after her five brothers.

But she didn’t do it alone. Through the difficult years following her mother’s death, Sonora watched her father care for his six children with love and devotion. She saw him make many sacrifices to give them all better lives.

So, having remembered all this on Mother’s Day in 1909, she felt inspired to campaign for equal recognition of fathers. In 1910, she approached the Spokane Ministerial Alliance and the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), asking them to help her establish Father’s Day as a day of celebration just like Mother’s Day. Thanks to the support of these organisations, and Sonora’s dedication to seeing her idea become a reality, the first Father’s Day was celebrated on 19 June 1910.

Sonora’s Father’s Day idea gained momentum when it was reported on in a newspaper, the Spokane Chronicle, on 6 June 1910. The newspaper report echoed what Sonora was aiming for in establishing Father’s Day: that fathers should be acknowledged for looking after their homes, wives, and children, for being good husbands, and for training their children to grow up into good citizens with good values.

Father’s Day in its early days was closely linked to Christian faith and church activities. In fact, this was so important that the original date that Sonora Dodd had in mind for the first Father’s Day had to be pushed back – because it was all happening so quickly that pastors weren’t going to have enough time to prepare for their special Father’s Day services!

Many other people were also keen to see Father’s Day succeed and become a national celebration across the USA. Local businesses that had already profited from Mother’s Day celebrations started taking out newspaper ads with a Father’s Day theme. Many businesses that would benefit most from people buying Father’s Day gifts – for example, manufacturers of ties, belts and braces, and menswear shops – helped Sonora to get her message out across the country. 

There’s no doubt that some saw Father’s Day as a money-making opportunity. However, this is not what lay behind Sonora Dodd’s initial idea as she sat in church thinking about the man who had loved and cared for her and her brothers. 

Her efforts to celebrate and promote Father’s Day were a practical expression of what God had ordained in the fifth of the Ten Commandments in the Bible: ‘Honour your father and your mother.’

President Woodrow Wilson approved Father’s Day as a national celebration in 1916, and by the time Sonora’s father, William – the man who had inspired the celebration – died in 1919, Father’s Day had already become a popular occasion across the United States of America. 

And in Australia, thanks to the efforts of Janet Heyden, we also honour our fathers and mothers every year.

Written by Graham McDonald.

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