Today, journalist, novelist, sometime feminist and peace activist Dorothy Day is most famous for her founding role in the Catholic Worker Movement, a radical Catholic socialist organization committed to “committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry, and foresaken.” Though Day herself passed away in 1980, today two hundred Catholic Worker communities continue to live out the vision of “the biblical promise of justice and mercy” articulated by Day and her mentor Peter Maurin.
Day was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1897 and as a child moved with her family to San Francisco (where she survived the 1906 earthquake) and then Chicago, where her father became a newspaper editor. Day followed in her father’s footsteps, dropping out of college in 1914, after two years at the University of Illinois, to move back to New York and work as a reporter for The Call, a socialist daily paper, and later The Masses, another radical publication.
During her years as a journalist, Dorothy Day covered peace rallies, labor strikes, and other radical causes. She was also at times a participant in such protest actions: in 1917 she was jailed, along with many other suffragists, for protesting outside of the White House, and joined her fellow activists on hunger strike while behind bars.
After the end of World War One, Day turned her attention to fiction as well as journalism, and with the income she earned as a writer was able to purchase a beach house on Staten Island, where she lived with her lover Forest Batterham, a botonist. In her autobiography, The Long Lonliness, Day describes the end of their relationship in primarily religious terms: she was an increasingly-committed Catholic and he was a staunch non-believer who was unable to accept or appreciate her religious faith. According to Day, the final straw came when she became unexpectedly pregnant and decided to go through with the pregnancy against Batterham’s wishes. Her daughter Tamar was born in 1927, and shortly thereafter both Dorothy Day and her infant daughter were recieved into the Catholic church.
Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, was first published in the 1950s and is very much a spiritual memoir. The 1996 biopic Entertaining Angels, starring Moira Kelly, cleaves fairly close to the story Day told. In the film, Martin Sheen plays Peter Maurin, the irascible refugee philosopher who became Day’s mentor and friend as she moved away from the journalism of her young adult years and into the more direct action of feeding and clothing and housing the needy during the worst years of the Great Depression.
Throughout the Second World War, Day and her fellow Workers maintained a commitement to pacifism, and following the war Day was arrested numerous times while on nonviolent protest against the Cold War and nuclear proliferation. They also became involved in the Civil Rights movement. There is a movement within the Catholic church to have Dorothy Day canonized as a saint, although throughout her life she resisted efforts to describe her work as somehow super-human, miraculous or otherwise noteworthy.
I, personally, find Dorothy Day an intensely interesting and intensely frustrating historical figure. Although she participated in suffrage activism during the 1910s, she moved away from feminist challenges to the status quo during the 1920s and 30s, and was critical of women who resisted the caretaking work that became central to her life’s project. Although a sharp thinker and gifted writer, she often deflected attention away from herself, crediting Maurin (the male philosopher) for the vision behind the Catholic Worker communities. Self-abnegation, central to the Catholic Workers’ commitment to voluntary poverty, becomes complicated when blended with narratives of gender that emphasis certain aspects of maleness and femaleness as “natural” or “essential.”
Throughout the decades of her involvement in social justice activism Day remained a chronicler, publishing articles that described the Catholic Worker movement and defending its means and aims to the public at large. Many of her writings have been made available at the Catholic Worker Movement website.