Day, Dorothy (1897–1980)

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Day, Dorothy (1897–1980)

American pacifist and radical who founded the Catholic Worker newspaper and ran the movement's New York House of Hospitality. Born Dorothy Day on November 8, 1897, in Brooklyn, New York; died on November 29, 1980; third of five children and eldest daughter of John and Grace (Saterlee) Day; married Barkeley Tobey (divorced); married (common law) Forster Batterham; children: (second marriage) Tamar (b. 1926).

Was first jailed, after a suffrage march (1917); published autobiographical novel The Eleventh Virgin (1924); converted to Catholicism (1927); issued first Catholic Worker (May 1, 1933); published From Union Square to Rome (1937); published autobiography, The Long Loneliness (1952); jailed with Mexican migrant workers, California (1973).

Dorothy Day spent her youth as a hard-drinking radical journalist in Greenwich Village and had love affairs with several literary celebrities of her day, including the playwright Eugene O'Neill. But after her conversion to Catholicism, she became a different kind of radical, as dedicated as before to social justice but now in the context of strict religious orthodoxy. Many American Catholics in the early years of the Catholic Worker movement disliked and mistrusted her, but by the last years of her life in the 1970s she was a widely acclaimed figure, taken by Catholic activists as a prophet and forerunner of the modern church.

Day was born in November 1897, the daughter of a journalist who wrote horse-racing columns and tried periodically to become a novelist. He was a rather unstable man, emotionally cold, often drunk, sometimes unable to work, and the family moved frequently during Day's youth, from New York to Oakland, California, then back to Chicago. She was in San Francisco, aged eight, at the time of the 1906 earthquake and recalled later how the emergency had led people to work together for once as they recovered from the catastrophe. At age 12, having had no religious education but with an eagerly religious temperament, Dorothy Day began to study the Bible and attend an Episcopalian church with her sister Della . Her mother's nervous breakdown when Dorothy was 15 increased an already stressful home life, but one from which she found it hard to break. She attended the University of Illinois in Champagne-Urbana for two years but left college when the family moved to New York rather than staying to graduate. Under the influence of her college professors, she declared herself an atheist.

In New York, she became a journalist for The Call and The Masses, met Floyd Dell, Max Eastman, and other militant Greenwich Village socialists. She endorsed their sexual radicalism too and entered into a destructive relationship with a bullying writer named Lionel Moise, which led to her becoming pregnant and getting an abortion, only to be deserted by him. She may even have attempted suicide in the backwash of this humiliating affair. She later gave a graphic fictional account of it in her one published novel, The Eleventh Virgin (1924), which she later regretted having ever written. Meanwhile, as a radical journalist

she roamed the poorest sections of New York's slums, writing about strikes, hunger, and the struggle of impoverished immigrant workers for living wages. She also volunteered for the Anti-Conscription League, which tried to prevent young men from being drafted to fight in the First World War. Always willing to join demonstrations and picket lines, Day was arrested in 1917 in a confrontation with Washington, D.C., police during a women's suffrage rally. She was sentenced to 30 days in jail and served 16 of them before President Woodrow Wilson pardoned her and her fellow inmates. Ironically, as the feminist scholar June O'Connor has shown, Day was not really devoted to the cause that led to her arrest. O'Connor writes:

Not only was Day not an advocate of women's suffrage, she was not a feminist in any self conscious, intentional, or public way. She spurned sociopolitical feminism, refusing to march on behalf of women's rights; she was no closet feminist either, since she regularly critiqued the movement in both its early and later twentieth century forms as being too self-centered.

Day was jailed again in 1922, this time after a police raid on a house owned by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), where she was wrongly accused of prostitution. She was released after a humiliating series of body searches and taunts.

A person can start out aiming to be righteous and end up self-righteous; we can become so earnestly the doers of works of charity that we think the Lord has given us a special blessing. … I remember a nun who came to visit us [who said] … 'This is dangerous work.' I'll remember her words until my dying day.

—Dorothy Day

After a stay in London, Paris, and Capri, during which a short, unsuccessful marriage to a literary promotor named Barkeley Tobey was unraveling, Day returned to America and went to work in Chicago for two years on the Communist newspaper The Liberator, then to New Orleans for a job with the New Orleans Item. While she was there, her novel was published. Though it was no great literary success, Day did manage to sell the movie rights for $5,000, with which she was able to return to New York and buy a house. She finally found a more durable relationship with Forster Batterham, a biologist, and lived with him as his common-law wife from 1924 until 1927. Together they had a child, Tamar, but were drawn apart by Day's growing determination to have the child, and then herself, baptized in the Catholic faith. Batterham, a principled atheist, would have nothing to do with organized religion, and on this irreconcilable difference the couple split up. Day later described their intense relationship in The Long Loneliness and explored the irony that, through loving him, she came to love God, though that in turn took her away from the man she loved:

Forster had made the physical world come alive for me and had awakened in my heart a flood of gratitude. The final object of this love and gratitude was God. No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I often felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore.

The breakup was stormy and painful; at one point, Batterham broke into the room where she was staying and almost strangled her after a raging argument.

At first, conversion did not help in pointing Day towards her life's work, and she continued to move restlessly, signing on for a time as a Hollywood scriptwriter, then touring Mexico with her young daughter and sending articles about peasant Catholics' everyday life to the Catholic journals America and Commonweal. As the Great Depression worsened, however, she became determined to aid the suffering people of America directly, rather than simply writing about them. Until then, her mid-30s, she had seen herself primarily as a writer. From this point on, she continued to write copiously but now most of her writing went into a new newspaper, The Catholic Worker, which she launched on May Day 1933 and sold for one cent per issue. Day also decided to live among the poor by running a House of Hospitality, always open, in which hungry men and women were fed, clothed, and sheltered, with no questions asked about their origins or experiences, and no effort to feed them religion before dinner (as did the Salvation Army). As she wrote in Loaves and Fishes, her book about her work:

We never ask people why they are here. They just come from the streets to eat, to wait, to find some place for themselves, to have someone to talk to, someone with whom to share and so to lighten their troubles.

Day ran her Mott Street House of Hospitality solely on voluntary contributions. Enough idealistic people (mainly but not all Catholics) contributed the money, time, blankets, clothes and food supplies to enable the experiment to survive, while Day's growing circle of admirers opened Houses of Hospitality in other cities across the United States. Her monthly articles in the Catholic Worker were almost always directly autobiographical, many of them anecdotes about life in the House, and, although an inevitable aura of romance soon surrounded it, she tried to discourage sentimentality by insisting on the horribleness of some of the people she welcomed there. Her constantly repeated theme was that the hand of Christian love must be held out especially to the people who are most unlovable, even if they are dishonest, unkind, and physically repellent. She was robbed repeatedly by people she had helped.

From the beginning, the Catholic Worker movement was influenced by Peter Maurin, a French immigrant from a peasant background (the oldest of 22 children) who preached and practiced an ascetic brand of Catholicism. An itinerant philosopher much given to cryptic utterances, Maurin published many of his thoughts in the Catholic Worker, but Day was careful not to surrender control of its editorial policy to him. Although the paper covered strikes and other issues of national and labor politics, it showed from the beginning a mystical tendency and carried "Easy Essays" by Maurin and philosophical ruminations by several other authors. With Maurin's encouragement, the Catholic Worker movement also bought a farm in upstate New York, but the group's lack of agricultural experience made it a hopeless failure except as a rural "flophouse." Maurin himself toured the country discussing the ideas of the movement but consistently returned to Dorothy Day in New York until he died in 1949. She always claimed that he was the mastermind behind the operation, though most historians of the movement doubt it. As one of them, Mel Piehl, points out:

It was personally comforting to Day, as well as strategically useful to her as a woman leading a social movement in the sexually conservative Catholic Church, to be able to point to the male co-founder of the movement and to emphasize that she was merely carrying out Maurin's program.

As a link with a venerable tradition of European Catholic social thought, moreover, he was a genuinely important figure. Like Day, he had a vision of sanctification through suffering and failure; at a time when most American Catholics wanted nothing more than an end to the Depression and

a revived prosperity, the two of them eagerly embraced the "privilege" of poverty and the chance to suffer a little of the pain Christ had known.

In 1891, Pope Leo XIII had issued an "encyclical" letter, Rerum Novarum ("The Conditions of Labor"), which condemned many of the characteristics of industrial capitalism and outlined the need for a just society. The encyclical also condemned socialism and communism as atheistic systems, and it upheld the right to private property. These two features had made it unacceptable to the growing American left at the turn of the century, but Catholic trade unionists quoted it to show that theirs was not a "reactionary" church. In 1931, the 40th anniversary of the first encyclical, Pope Pius XI issued a new encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno ("The Reconstruction of the Social Order"), confirming the older Pope's declarations and updating his indictment of a heartless, materialist capitalism. The American Catholic bishops had also made a statement pledging themselves to "social reconstruction" at the beginning of the 1920s. This collection of official declarations gave Day and her followers ample justification for their work, though the pontiffs and bishops had not foreseen the kind of radical self-abnegation Day brought to her program. The Catholic Worker, then, was pledged to fight for social justice and against communism along papally approved lines. As historian James Fisher has shown, many of Day's Catholic contemporaries feared that it was "a potential Trojan Horse for Communist infiltration, while on the Left, Day's former associates scorned it as a tool of clerical fascism."

Day enriched her own religious life by becoming involved in frequent meditative retreats, conducted in strict silence and featuring severe self-mortification, led by Fathers Onesimus Lacouture and John Hugo. These priests, dismayed by the materialism and complacency of many American Catholics, saw in Day a true believer in their idea of salvation through suffering. Their ideals were so extreme that the church hierarchy itself censured them in 1943, arguing that they were taking a "Jansenist" position that condemned nature itself as corrupt. To Dorothy Day, however, they remained inspirational, and she wrote a massive collection of retreat articles based on their ideas.

In the interwar years, most American Catholics were either themselves immigrants, or were descended from people who had migrated to America in the last hundred years, and whose ethnic identity was still strong—Irish, German, Polish, Italian, and Slavic. Typical Catholic laypeople were docile and deferential towards the church hierarchy so that lay Catholic movements usually accepted leadership and guidance from priests. Day was no immigrant (she had Puritan ancestors) and did not want priests telling her what to do. Instead, she threw down constant challenges to the clergy and bishops, demanding that they live up to the church's high ideals, spend less on their own creature comforts and more on the urban poor all around them, and fulfil the honorable vow of poverty. She was sufficiently eloquent and impressive that even some of the important church patriarchs, such as New York's Cardinal Francis Spellman, who could have made life very difficult for her organization, put up with her criticisms and contributed both money and words of encouragement to her work. Spellman remarked to another priest that, despite her odd ways, she might turn out to be a saint.

In 1936, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War forced an early crisis on the Catholic Worker. Most of the American Catholic press was fervently enthusiastic about Francisco Franco's uprising—some newspapers referred to him as "The George Washington of Spain." The reason was that the Spanish republic of the early 1930s was anti-clerical, and, when the war began, republicans in some communities massacred priests and nuns. Rebelling against the republic, Franco posed as the defender of the church against bloodthirsty atheism. Day, however, was implacably opposed to war under any circumstances and refused to endorse Franco. She was still close enough to the American secular left to know that it had its own string of atrocity stories, of massacres committed by Francoists, and this knowledge hardened her determination to speak out for neither combatant. This pacifist-neutrality enraged mainstream Catholic editors, and Day became the object of their editorial wrath.

Catholics who could tolerate her neutrality in that comparatively remote war had a more difficult time accepting her continued antiwar position during World War II when America was directly involved. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the news of Nazi atrocities in Europe convinced many Catholic Workers that they must fight in the war. About 80% of the Catholic Worker men eligible for military service accepted the call and went to fight. Day never wavered in her absolute pacifist convictions, however, and remained highly controversial on the issue during the 1950s when the government tried to compel citizens' cooperation in civil-defense schemes against possible nuclear attacks. Day coolly refused to move to a fallout shelter during trial runs and was prosecuted for her resistance in 1955 (but given a suspended sentence). She and several sympathizers protested against these drills in each of the next four years, sometimes serving a few days in prison after having their day in court (where they condemned the immorality of a nuclear weapons-based military policy) but more often released with suspended sentences right away. Day also condemned a declaration by Pope Pius XII in 1956 when he spoke in favor of the Catholic "just war" tradition and against the idea that a Catholic could be a conscientious objector or pacifist.

The Second Vatican Council (1962–65) and the social turmoil of the 1960s transformed American Catholicism. Priests and nuns began to participate in civil-rights marches and anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, even to be arrested for civil disobedience. A young man named Roger LaPorte, who had worked occasionally at one of the Houses of Hospitality, burned himself alive in front of the United Nations in protest over the American escalation of the Vietnam War. As he lay dying, he declared that he was one of the Catholic Workers. To the Catholic left of that decade, Day was already a legend, and her life's work an inspiring example. She did not always see eye to eye with the Catholic left, however, especially when some of its members seemed less devoted to strict religious orthodoxy than she. For example, the Jesuit priest, writer, and activist Daniel Berrigan held informal celebrations of the mass at the Catholic Worker house but horrified Day by casually breaking ordinary bread for communion and letting crumbs fly (even though priests were taught that every particle of the bread, transformed by transubstantiation into the Body of Christ, must be accounted for). She never endorsed the clamor of young Catholics for a relaxation of the papal prohibition on contraception; to her, indeed, the strict sexual code of Catholicism had beckoned her away from what she saw as a dissolute life.

The Catholic Worker movement was still thriving when Dorothy Day died in 1980. By then, tens of thousands of Americans had been affected by it, some as recipients of food, clothing, and shelter, others as volunteers or temporary residents. Day knew that many people who came for short stays, especially students and intellectuals, became impatient at the impracticality of the Workers' system, and its inability to touch the roots of the problems it tried to remedy. Responding to critics of this kind, Day answered:

We are impractical, as impractical as Calvary. … We feed the hungry, yes; we try to shelter the homeless and give them clothes, if we have some, but there is a strong faith at work; we pray. If an outsider who comes to visit doesn't pay attention to our praying and what that means, then he'll miss the whole point of the thing.

For Day, participation in a community of suffering, which she often thought of and referred to as the Mystical Body of Christ, was certain to seem illogical to purely secular observers. To it, nevertheless, she dedicated the second and more successful half of her life.


Coles, Robert. Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1987.

Fisher, James T. The Catholic Counter-Culture in America: 1933–1962. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Miller, William. Dorothy Day: A Biography. San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1982.

O'Connor, June. The Moral Vision of Dorothy Day: A Feminist Perspective. NY: Crossroad, 1991.

Piehl, Mel. Breaking Bread: The Catholic Worker and the Origin of Catholic Radicalism. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1982.

Roberts, Nancy L. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1984.

Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia