The History of Father’s Day in the United States

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Photo Credit: Story Time (Portrait Of The Artist`s Father And Daughter), Ekvall Knut, 1843-1912, taken 11 April 2013 by Plum leaves: Plum leaves/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Last month, I wrote a blog post about the history of Mother’s Day. In honor of Father’s Day, which this year will be on Sunday, June 21 in the United States, I’m taking a look back at the history of Father’s Day too.

Unlike Mother’s Day, which has definite origins, the history of Father’s Day is a little more vague. There were, in fact, two local celebrations going on during the Progressive Era that are thought to be the official kick-off of Father’s Day, both celebrated for personal reasons. In 1910, Sonora Smart Dodd, inspired by Mother’s Day, which was becoming a popular holiday at that time, campaigned in her home state of Washington for an official Father’s Day celebration in June, largely wanting to commemorate her own father, who had been a Civil War veteran and raised her and her five brothers and sisters alone on a farm when his wife died in childbirth. She succeeded, as Washington began celebrating a state-wide Father’s Day that year. The other celebration happened on a wider but no less personal scale. Two years earlier, in West Virginia, a local Methodist church in Fairmont celebrated the day in honor of 361 fathers who were killed in a local mining explosion.

But as far as official lobbying and support goes, this was slow in coming. There were national political figures, such as William Jennings Bryan and Calvin Coolidge who supported a national Father’s Day, but these recommendations didn’t get much traction. There are several reasons for this. As many of us know, Mother’s Day has becomes a commercially viable holiday and was that way from very early on. It was, in fact, its commercial appeal that helped get Woodrow Wilson to sign a proclamation declaring it a national holiday in the United States in 1914. But many felt that fathers just didn’t have the same monetary appeal as mothers, mainly because the sentiment attached to mothers from the long history of the separate spheres wasn’t attached to fathers. As I discuss here, the role of the father in the 19th and early 20th century was more of a teacher and disciplinarian. The same sentimentality also seemed to undermine the idea of the “manly man”, emphasizing the masculinity crisis, especially in the late 19th and early20th centuries. 

There were even some int he 1920’s and 1930’s who lobbied to abolish Mother’s Day and, instead, create an overarching Parent’s Day, arguing that it wasn’t the separate role of the mother, or the father, for that matter, that should be celebrated — it was the institution of parenthood that deserved the celebration (and my home country, Israel, went a step further and abolished Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in the 1990’s in favor of Family Day). But the lobbying for a Father’s Day was strong and in 1972, Richard Nixon declared Father’s Day a national holiday on the third Sunday of June in the United States.

Fathers play a role in my Waxwood Series, though in a less conventional way than in most books. In False Fathers, Book 2 of the series, Jake Alderdice’s biological father is absent and, instead, his entire life had been filled with substitute father figures. It’s one of these figures that leads him to both chaos and maturity in the book.

Want to grab a copy of the book for Father’s Day? False Fathers is at a special price through Sunday. You can find out more about it and buy it at your favorite online retailer here. To find out more about the series, you can go here.    

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A History of Mother’s Day in the United States

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Photo Credit: Flowers for Mother, from Pictures and Prattle for the Nursery children’s book by Harrison Weir, published in 1880: Fae/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 100

In the United States, Mother’s Day falls on the second Sunday in May. This year (2020), the holiday is on May 10. This also happens to be the exact day when, in 1908, Anna Jarvis, editor and activist, created the first official Mother’s Day by holding a celebration in Philadelphia. She also, incidentally, started the tradition of giving flowers on the day by sending five hundred white carnations to the church in her home town to commemorate her own mother.

Although Jarvis is credited as the godmother of Mother’s Day in the United States, she was not the first one to come up with the idea. Jarvis’ own mother Ann Maria Jarvis, has that honor. From all accounts, Jarvis’ mother was the prototype Victorian woman, devoted to her children and her church. At the same time, she was also an activist of sorts, but, unlike the suffragists, she kept to her side of the separate spheres. That is, her work was confined mainly to areas where it was acceptable for women to instigate changes. Her activist work was nonetheless important, as it consisted of forming Mothers’ Day Club events, where the goal was to educate mothers on proper hygiene so as to curtail the massive infant death rates prevalent in the nineteenth century. It’s interesting to note Ann Maria conceived of Mother’s Day quite differently than her daughter. To Ann Maria, maternal responsibility was very much linked to community service, and her idea was to celebrate the role of motherhood in general. Her daughter, on the other hand, confined her 1908 celebration to her own mother, and her advocacy to make the day a national holiday was about men and women honoring their individual mothers — hence, we call it Mother’s Day and not Mothers’ Day. So Jarvis took Mother’s Day to a very personal level.

Putting this activism in the historical context in which it belongs, it might seem a little contradictory that the fight to get Mother’s Day declared a national holiday came during the first decade of the twentieth century. This was the era of Progressive reform where women were taking their lives outside the private sphere and fighting in the social and political arena for their rights and identities as individuals. So it might seem a little odd that Jarvis would lead a movement honoring women’s most traditional role inside the home. In addition, Jarvis was, for all intents and purposes, one of the New Women who held a career as an advertising editor and earned a college degree. But if we take a second look, it actually isn’t so incongruent. Suffragism was also about making women visible and respected on their own merits and for what they had to contribute to society. Mothers fit right into this category, so it makes sense that the fight to get mothers recognized and respected would find a lot of support.

Photo Credit: Anna Jarvis, founder of Mother’s Day in America. Probably taken around the turn of the century, judging by the hair style and clothes, but no additional information about the image. Uploaded 4 May 2017 by Jonas Duyvejonck: jonasduyvejonck/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Jarvis campaigned with the government for Mother’s Day and won. In May of 1914 (only a few months before the outbreak of World War I), President Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation that declared Mother’s Day a national holiday in the United States. By the 1920’s, Mother’s Day, like most American holidays, had become a very profitable one, specifically for florists and candy makers. Jarvis was disillusioned by this commercialization of Mother’s Day toward the end of her life, and she spent much of her later years trying to gain the recognition she and her mother deserved for being the godmothers of the holiday. One of the beautiful things about history is that, while innovators may not be appreciated during their own lifetime, we can look back and give them the appreciation they deserve decades, even centuries, later. 

Mothers play a huge role in my fiction. Some of them are martyrs (like Mary’s mother in the short story “Mother of Mischief,” which is part of my collection of post-war stories, Lessons From My Mother’s Life), while others are hard-bitten and manipulative (like Joan’s mother in the story “Soul Destinations,” also part of the Lessons collection). In my Gilded Age family saga, the Waxwood Series, Larissa, the Alderdice family matriarch, is a complex mother. Note quite the sort of mother whom you would want to tuck you in at night, she nevertheless has an admirable strength and survival that runs throughout the series.

You can find out more about Larissa and the rest of the characters of the Waxwood Series on this page. All my books feature interesting mothers, and you can find out all about them here.    

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The Problem That Has No Name

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Photo Credit: Silhouette of woman’s face in a question mark, uploaded 9 February 2019 by Mohamad Hassan: mohammad hassan/Pxhere/CC0 1.0

This month, I’ve been talking a lot about Betty Friedan and her book, The Feminine Mystique, because the ideas in that book were an inspiration for the stories in the new edition of my first book Gnarled Bones and Other Stories. How that came to be, I go into in the Forward of that book.     

I was first exposed to Friedan and her ideas in graduate school. I took several courses in feminist theory and feminist literature, and one of our textbooks gave a snippet from Friedan’s book. The passage was one that appears in a lot of college materials on feminist theory: The Problem That Has No Name. 

This might seem like a convoluted and abstract idea but, in fact, Fridan breaks it down into an entire chapter in her book. Writing articles for women’s magazines in the 1950s, Friedan had an opportunity to visit with many suburban housewives, and her talks with them revealed how these women, who were supposed to be living the American Woman’s Dream had, in fact, a problem — a big problem. Their lives weren’t such a dream. In fact, each woman felt “a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that … [she] struggled with … alone” (Friedan, p. 1). In other words, many of the suburban housewives Friedan met expressed the same uncertain feeling that something wasn’t quite right with their lives, that, though they were living in comfort and ease, something was missing, and that missing something caused them to be unhappy, dissatisfied, and unfulfilled.

That snippet during my graduate studies made an impression on me, and I have since read Friedan’s book. I’ve been impressed by how comprehensively she looks at the way in which so many American institutions (including magazines, schools, advertisers, and the medical establishment) had created such a powerful ideology about what women should be and their road to happiness in mid-20th century America.

The key to Friedan’s feminine mystique was that it wasn’t just about the stereotype of the 1950’s happy housewife embodied in 1950’s television shows such as Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. It wasn’t just about an ideal of what all women, young and old, should strive for. It was about the mind play, the idea that a woman’s destiny to serve others (husband, children, community) should be her purpose in life, and if she did achieve this goal, she would find contentment. 

But as Friedan discovered, many of these women who, for intents and purposes, should have been happy, weren’t. And they felt guilty about it. They felt they let their families down, and they felt there was something wrong with them. They tried to blot out the problem by immersing themselves in more housework or more committees or by taking sedatives. They shifted the blame sometimes to their husbands or their children or some other outside source. Worst of all, many tried to ignore it. In short, they did everything but deal with it. 

This is, in fact, a part of how the second wave feminist movement began. It started with the feminist “consciousness raising” groups. The idea was to encourage women to discuss problems and issues related to women by connecting them to their own lives, so that they felt not only that they weren’t alone, but that they could also seek guidance together. There is a great consciousness-raising scene in the 1975 film version of The Stepford Wives, a dark comedy about the suburban housewife. Despite its tongue-in-cheek reference to this idea of women getting together to discuss their problems, the scene contains a lot of truth, especially in the way it depicts the suburban housewife’s narrow world. I talk a lot about this in my blog post about the 1950s housewife as well.

The women in Lessons From My Mother’s Life live in the 1950s and early 1960s and are subject to this same kind of snow job about how their lives should make them happy and fulfilled. But they each come to realize they suffer from The Problem That Has No Name. They come to see their lives, for all the glossy veneer, isn’t what the women’s magazines, advertisers, doctors, and psychiatrists tell them it ought to be. They don’t wait for the women’s movement to raise their awareness and give them options. They examine their own psychological reality and make their own options.

If you’d like to know more about Lessons From My Mother’s Life, coming out in March 2020, then you can click on this link.     

Works Cited

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.

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The Era of “Occupation: Housewife”

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Photo Credit: 1950s happy housewife in the kitchen cooking, uploaded 24 May 2011 by Ethan: SportSuburban/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

In an interview she did in 1977, author and godmother of the second wave feminist movement, Betty Friedan, mentions, a little tongue-in-cheek, the idea of writing in the census blank “Occupation: Housewife” when she was a young woman in the 1950s. In her seminal 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, Friedan defines this decade as the era of “Occupation: Housewife.” Many women who had gone into the work force due to the shortage of men in the 1940s had, in the post-war era, retreated back to the home. As I explain in my blog post about the feminine mystique, women in mid-20th century America were sold a bill of goods about their identities and their purpose in life as wives and mothers. “Occupation: Housewife” was an extension of that.

In the 1950s, the role of housewife was taken very seriously, so seriously it seemed as if outside forces were working together to convince women the only road to happiness was as a housewife. Icons like Leave it to Beaver’s June Cleaver, Father Knows Best’s Margaret Anderson, and Ozzie and Harriet’s Harriet Nelson became the epitome of how women should be and act. Women’s magazines like Women’s Day and Good Housekeeping not only carried advice for housewives, but included fiction focused on the housewife heroine. Guides like the one mentioned in this article told women how they should treat their husbands like gods and take care of their children so that no one could blame them if their kids turned out less than perfect (a very popular thing, thanks to Freud). Lest women realize (as many did, according to Friedan) they were more than just a cleaning machine and a servant to their husband and kids, advertisers glorified housework to the point where women would believe the world would fall apart if they didn’t retreat into their homes and bake a cake every day.

Putting this in historical context, it’s easy to see where the obsession with selling women on the idea that their only worth was in their housewifery skills came from. As I mentioned above, women were going out into the work force, some for the very first time, during World War II when workers were needed, and male labor was scarcer. After the war ended, the expectation was that women would retreat from the work force to make room for men returning from the front. In addition, the psychological atmosphere of post-war America was one of a  return to a life of stability, conformity, and traditional roles. All of these gel with the idea of women taking care of the home and making their life’s work “Occupation: Housewife.”    

Being a housewife, in and of itself, is something to be proud of, since it takes a lot of thought, skill, organization, prioritizing, and patience. In our modern sensibility, we know many women would be proud to write on the census blank “Occupation: Housewife.” But the difference between housewives today and housewives seventy years ago is that today’s housewives, for the most part, are not being told their worth lies in how sparkling they can wax their kitchen floor, or how many of their kids’ soccer games they attend.

And therein lies the problem: The 1950’s housewife was made to feel as if this was all she ever would accomplish. Even if she had other aspirations and dreams, they were only trivial compared to her “real work” as a housewife. Friedan points out, “[N]o matter how elaborate, ‘Occupation: housewife’ is not an adequate substitute for truly challenging work, important enough to society to be paid for in its coin…” (p. 294). 

My upcoming book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, features many 1950s and early 1960s housewives who would put “Occupation: Housewife” on the census bureau questionnaire. Some would do it gladly (such as the young bride-to-be in the story “Fumbling Toward Freedom”), and some more reluctantly (such as the heroine of “Mother of Mischief”). But all the protagonists, whether current or future housewives, recognize their worth lies in something more than cleaning, washing, and picking up the kids from school. They feel, like many of the subjects Friedan spoke with who were the inspiration for her book, that something isn’t quite right, that the picture-perfect images of housewives that glare out at them on their TV screens, glossy women’s magazines, and billboards are incongruent with who they are. This moment of epiphany is what drives many of them in the stories.

Get more information on Lessons, coming in March 2020, here.

Works Cited

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.

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The Feminine Mystique

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Photo Credit: Betty Friedan as photographed in her home, 1978, photo taken  by Lynn Gilbert and uploaded 6 August 2009: LynnGilbert5/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Until now, most of my blog posts have related to the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. I’ve made no secret about the fact that the late 19th/early 20th centuries have always fascinated me, and a lot of my fiction takes place during these time periods.

But I’m interested in other eras as well, especially those relevant to women’s social, psychological, and political position. One of these time periods was the mid-20th century, a breeding ground for the second wave feminist movement which came in the late 1960s. My upcoming book is a second edition of my first published book, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories, and the five stories in this collection are set in the 1950s and early 1960s. All the stories were inspired by Betty Friedan’s feminine mystique, a revolutionary way of looking at femininity at that time.

Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique introduced this concept to the American public. The book explores Friedan’s experiences talking with women in the 1950s. She takes a very comprehensive look at the feminine mystique and the institutions that allowed this image to emerge.     

The idea of the feminine mystique has been defined in many ways, but, for me, it’s the idea that a woman’s biological, psychological, social and spiritual destiny boils down to two things: getting married and having children. There is nothing else outside of these that a woman can, and should, want. In Friedan’s own words:

“[For] the feminine mystique, there is no other way for a woman to dream of creation or of the future. There is no way she can even dream about herself, except as her children’s mother, her husband’s wife.” (p. 59)

I think this is really the crux of the mystique: a woman’s identity, her fulfillment in life, her capabilities, and her intelligence are all tied to who she is in relation to the other people in her life. Her role in life is defined, then, as wife, mother, daughter, granddaughter, caretaker, lover, etc.

You’ve probably heard that the The Feminine Mystique led to the second-wave feminist movement in the late 1960’s. But, as Gail Collins, in her preface to the 50th edition of the book points out, that’s not, strictly speaking, true:

The Feminine Mystique did not create the women’s rights movement. Those commissions on the status of women were started by the Kennedy administration before it [the book] was published, and the Civil Rights Act was being debated in Congress while American housewives were still just starting to pass Friedan’s book around. (Friedan, location 128-132)

From a political perspective, this may very well be true. But I think from a psychological perspective, Friedan’s book did much to bring many “a-ha!” moments into the lives of the women (and men) who read it in 1963, when it was first published, and in the years to follow.

Friedan’s book has been heavily criticized, as any seminal work on gender politics would. For a start, her book is looking at a very narrow population of women: American, white, upper-middle class, and suburban-living. This was also an issue with the second-wave feminist movement — that it was addressing the needs of white middle-class women. The needs of women of color, working class or poor women, older women, lesbians, etc., were left out. In fact, the third wave feminist movement, which began around the late 1980s and early 1990s, was started to rectify this situation, as it strives to include all women and has earned the name “global feminism.” In addition, the book was also criticized for offering one single solution: that women defy the feminine mystique by getting out of the house and having careers. The implication that being a housewife and mother was somehow inferior to being a career women rubbed a lot of women (and rightly so) the wrong way. There were also personal attacks made against Friedan, more of which you can read about here.

My upcoming book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, brings to light fictional representations of the feminine mystique (among other themes). The stories are set in the 1950s and early 1960s, before the second-wave feminist movement. In each story, the main character is fighting against the feminine mystique in one away or another. For example, in my story “Fumbling Toward Freedom,” Susan is a nineteen-year-old college student about to marry an upright young man still in medical school. When she attends an exhibition of Circe sculptures by a local San Francisco artist, she finds they show her the consequences of letting love define who she is, so that her rush to get married at so young an age and quit college to become a housewife and mother, becomes less enticing. On the other side of the spectrum, Leanne, in “Two Sides of Life” is a seasoned mother of two grown children whose surprising bond with the wife of her husband’s lab assistant causes her to rethink her identity embodied in the feminine mystique.

Lessons From My Mother’s Life will be out on March 29, 2020. To learn more about the book, please visit this page.    

Works Cited

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.

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