Family  /  Comment

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.

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.”