Dorothy Day (1897 - 1980)

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Dorothy DayDorothy Day is a model for our time for several reasons.  First, because she was peculiarly, deeply, and undeniably American, and thus brought a very special character to her life as a Christian peacemaker. Although she loved Russian, French, British, and Italian novelists - particularly Dostoevsky, George Bernanos, Dickens, Orwell, and Ignazio Silone - she was a child of the American experience, and her religious commitment as well as her vocation was bound up with this country.  Her early family life, which was casually religious, her formal education in public schools and at the University of Illinois, as well as her admiration for William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience, shaped her sensibility.  She was a disciple of the American radical tradition - persistently anarchist and religious - from Thomas Paine to Martin Luther King, Jr.  Her close association with The Masses, Mike Gold and Ammon Hennacy - as well as her admiration for Eugene Victor Debs, Emma Goldman, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn - was formative and enduring.  Peter Maurin, a French peasant, was her teacher once she became a Catholic, but her temper was in the American grain.

Second, because she was a member of the laity.  Unlike many religious figures held up for imitation to young people, she was not a cleric.  She belonged to the group that emerged as a shaping force in the church at the time of the Second Vatican Council, which she followed closely.  As a 20th-century heroine who faced the anxieties and challenges of a violent century, she was not so far removed from us as to appear foreign or aloof.

Third, because she failed, like most people, at many things - as a wife, in an early marriage, and perhaps as a parent.  Although many of us see Dorothy Day as triumphant, as a success story, one must acknowledge her judgment of her life in The Long Loneliness (1952): "I feel that I have done nothing well. But I have done what I could."  She often said that she took on certain responsibilities only because others (Peter Maurin, Ammon Hennacy, Karl Meyer) pushed them upon her.  Although faithful and resilient, she never pretended to be all-knowing or all-powerful.

Sometimes the only thing that keeps a woman going is the necessity of taking care of her young.  She cannot sink into lethargy and despair because the young ones are dragging at her skirts, clamoring for something - food, clothing, shelter, occupation.  She is carried outside herself.

Fourth, because she was a writer, the kind of writer that the language needs at this moment.  She understood the power of everyday speech, and wrote in a manner that was understandable to everyone.  Although she had a complex and demanding message to communicate, she fashioned a style that shunned pretension, artifice, or "rhetoric," in order to convey that message.  On the works of mercy, she wrote, for example: "Martyrdom is not gallantly standing before a firing squad. Usually, it is the losing of a job because of not taking a loyalty oath or buying a war bond, or paying a tax.  Martyrdom is small, hidden, misunderstood."  Elsewhere, in a meditation on the virtue of obedience, she said:

Obedience is a mater of love, which makes it voluntary, not compelled by far or force.  Pope John's motto was "Obedience and Peace."  Yet he was the Pope who flouted conventions which had hardened into laws as to what a pope could and could not do, and the Pharisees were scandalized and the people delighted.

Fifth, because she internalized values associated with peace and justice and gave them substance.  In her devotion to voluntary poverty, nonviolence and the radical reconstruction of the social order, she lived among workers, radicals, prisoners, and the down-and-out.  For Christians, she came as a great shock.  There, in the life and vocation of one woman were the values that had been held up to church members, but often by people who did not embody them.  Through her, the words became flesh: devotion to the poor, resistance to war, vulnerability toward circumstance, and charity to everyone.

Born in Brooklyn, on November 8, 1897, Dorothy Day lived briefly in San Francisco, but grew up in Chicago, where her father worked as a journalist.  At 15, she won a scholarship to the University of Illinois, Urbana, and there became a socialist.  Two years later, she moved to New York City, where she lived most of her life.  As a young radical, she was arrested with the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) and the suffragettes, as she was later with war resisters and United Farm Workers.  During World War I, she wrote for The Masses and during the 20s lived in Greenwich Village, where she became friends with Eugene O'Neill, Malcolm and Peggy Cowley, Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, and Kenneth Burke.  At that time, she worked as a nurse, wrote a novel, The Eleventh Virgin, married, and lived briefly in Mexico.

In 1926, Day's conversion to Catholicism led to her separation from her common law husband, Foster Batterham, and to a break with some of her radical friends.  During these years, she supported herself and her only daughter, Tamar Teresa, by writing for America, Commonweal, and other periodicals.

On May 1, 1933, five months after meeting Peter Maurin, Dorothy Day co-founded The Catholic Worker, a monthly newspaper dedicated to making known "the expressed and implied teachings of Christ."  It is published today, as it was over seventy years ago, at a penny a copy, with a circulation of 100,000.  In the years between 1933 and her death in late November 1980, Dorothy Day lived at various Houses of Hospitality and Catholic Worker farms near New York City, edited the newspaper, wrote five books, and spoke frequently at colleges, universities, churches, and Catholic Worker communities throughout the United States.

At a 1973 United Farm Workers demonstration in Lamont, CA  (Photo: Bob Fitch)Over those decades, she emerged as the most remarkable person in the history of American Catholicism and in some ways the most influential.  Although few people managed, like her, to make a total commitment to voluntary poverty, personalism, or Christian anarchism, they often learned a great deal from her and some went on to significant vocations modeled on her example.  By the end of the 20th century, there were over one hundred and fifty Catholic Worker Houses throughout the world, including the U.S., England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Australia, and New Zealand.

Through her work - feeding the poor and housing the homeless, through her newspaper and her monthly column, "On Pilgrimage," and through her war tax resistance and civil disobedience, Dorothy Day touched the lives of numerous people: workers, intellectuals, students, clergy, and women of three generations.  Among the writers and editors who, at various times, helped to edit The Catholic Worker are Michael Harrington, author of The Other America; John Cogley, James O'Gara, and John Cort, editors of Commonweal; Tom Cornell and James Forrest, co-founders of the Catholic Peace Fellowship; Jack Cook, author of Rags of Time: A Season in Prison; and Robert Ellsberg, editor in chief, Orbis Books. Among the host of artists and radicals who contributed to the monthly newspaper were Ammon Hennacy, W. H. Auden, Gordon Zahn, Ade Bethune, Thomas Merton, Daniel Berrigan, Philip Berrigan, Eileen Egan, Fritz Eichenberg, Rita Corbin and Denise Levertov.

When Dorothy Day died, she was mourned by the down-and-out in Manhattan, whom she fed and clothed, as well as by the great and famous, including the cardinal archbishop of New York, who came to bless her coffin.  Many regard her as a saint.

Dr. Michael True, reprinted with permission, from Justice-Seekers, Peacemakers: 32 Portraits in Courage, Mystic, CT: XXIII Publications, 1985.

Selected material by Dorothy Day
  • By Little and By Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day, ed. Robert Ellsberg. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983, reprinted by Orbis Books.
  • On Pilgrimage: The Sixties. NY: Curtis Books, 1972.
  • Loaves and Fishes. NY: Harper and Row, 1963, 1983.
  • The Long Loneliness: An Autobiography. NY: Harper and Row, 1952.
Selected material about Dorothy Day
  • Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement: Centenary Essays, ed. William Thorn, Phillip Runkel, Susan Mountin. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2001.
  • Coles, Robert, Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1987.
  • William D. Miller, A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. NY: Liveright, 1973.
  • Mel Piehl, Breaking Bread: The Catholic Worker and the Origin of Catholic Radicalism in America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.
  • Bios   ( 24 )
    Inspirational noteworthy figures in the history of nonviolence, peace, and social justice
  • Groups   ( 24 )
    Groups and organizations that have played significant roles in nonviolent movements
  • Concepts   ( 18 )
    Important concepts related to peace and nonviolence, especially in regards to nonviolent action
  • Movements   ( 26 )
    Movements and historical events where nonviolent action was used entirely or in large part
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