Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2123
Article abstract: Cofounder of a radical Catholic social movement, the Catholic Worker (CW), and editor and publisher of its paper, Day linked traditional piety to immediate relief for the needy and to nonviolent direct action in order to end injustice and war.
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The third of the five children of John I. Day and Grace Satterlee, Dorothy Day was born on November 8, 1897, in Brooklyn, New York, into a comfortable home. At the time of Dorothy’s birth, John Day, the ambitious son of an impoverished Confederate surgeon, was a clerk, but advanced to sports editor, columnist, and partner in the Hialeah Racetrack venture later in life. During prosperous periods, the family employed a domestic servant. Reared in Protestant churches, the Days were not regular churchgoers when their children were growing up. On her own initiative, Dorothy was baptized into the Episcopal church as a teenager.
Shortly after Dorothy started school, the family moved across the continent to the San Francisco Bay Area, where John Day accepted a position as sports editor at one of the city’s major papers. The 1906 earthquake devastated the family’s home and ruined John Day’s employer. Resettled in Chicago, the Days experienced unaccustomed poverty. The family rented a grim tenement apartment above a saloon, and Grace Day assumed the duties once performed by the maid.
Parental protectiveness failed to shield the children from social reality and radicalism. Their seedy neighborhood provided an observant child such as Dorothy with an education about injustice. A precocious reader, she devoured the writings of muckrakers and socialists, whose lurid realism inspired progressive reform during the early twentieth century. She enjoyed writing and performed well enough in high school to win a coveted Hearst scholarship to the University of Illinois. As an undergraduate, Dorothy nurtured her talent in the Scribblers’ Club and reinforced her radical leanings by joining a Socialist group, experiencing student poverty, and reading whatever interested her. In 1916, after two years of mediocre academic performance, she quit the university and joined her family in New York, where John Day had assumed a promising position after the failure of still another of his employers.
At age eighteen, armed with a thin portfolio of writings from small-town news- papers, Dorothy Day became a reporter, despite her father’s edict that women belonged at home. Hired as a lowly features writer by a New York-based socialist daily, the Call, Day wrote vividly about women workers, a series much admired by the reform-minded Russell Sage Foundation. Soon the Call sent Day to cover strikes, riots, birth control activists, and the peace movement. Perhaps the rookie reporter’s greatest coup was an interview of Russian revolutionist Leon Trotsky weeks before the czar was overthrown.
Day’s career was boosted when Floyd Dell hired her to assist him with the editing of The Masses, Greenwich Village’s chic radical monthly. Within a few months, wartime censorship shut down the magazine, leaving Day without regular work. At the urging of a friend, she traveled to Washington and picketed for woman suffrage in front of the White House. The pair was arrested a few times and jailed, along with members of the militant National Woman’s Party. At the notorious Occoquan Workhouse Day, the women engaged in a hunger strike, and Day scuffled with guards over inmate conditions. Ironically, Dorothy Day never voted in a national election on principle. Throughout her life, she preferred direct action, especially picketing, to the debates and deals of politicians. She joined in this demonstration out of boredom and a desire to address the treatment of political prisoners in American penal institutions.
Between 1918 and 1924, a period of drift, Day fell in and out of love, was married and divorced, and traveled throughout Europe and the United States. She published a novel of disillusionment, The Eleventh Virgin (1924), patterned on her life, and entered into a common-law marriage with Forster Batterham, a biologist with whom she had a daughter, Tamar. Her search for self-purpose led her into the Catholic church in 1927, which precipitated a break with Batterham, whose commitments to anarchism and atheism made him hostile to organized religion. Day tried to maintain her friendships with radicals and for a few years sought work within the radical movement. Before 1931, she wrote a few articles for the New Masses, a Communist literary magazine, and was a propagandist for a Communist front group.
Accepting a contract to write dialogue in Hollywood, Day moved with Tamar to California. Uncomfortable in this bourgeois setting, she left for Mexico. Upon their return to the United States, Day wrote for Catholic magazines but felt unfulfilled. A radical at heart and a Catholic convert with a social conscience, Day wanted to help change the social order that created injustice. Writing about it was not enough, especially when she saw the human suffering caused by the Depression.
In 1932, she met the person who helped her to resolve her vocational crisis. Peter Maurin, twenty years Day’s senior and a French immigrant, was a devout Catholic, well read in Catholic and social issues, and committed to nonviolent revolution. Encouraged by her platonic friend, Day founded The Catholic Worker, a tabloid edited, published, and at first largely written by her. Within five years, the paper reached nearly 200,000 readers each month. Lively writing about work and social injustice and a sense of urgency attracted readers, many of whom wanted to put radical Catholic social ideals into practice. The bold works of art that graced its pages, as well as its trademark penny cover price, added to the paper’s appeal.
The Catholic Worker movement started with the paper, the feeding of the hungry, and later the establishment of houses of hospitality, where homeless people could find shelter without the annoying difficulties of welfare bureaucracies and the condescension of do-gooders. A clothing room outfitted the tattered. All were to be treated with dignity, each person an ambassador of Christ. Peaceful protests aroused social consciences. Catholic Workers picketed with striking workers, taught black children in Harlem how to draw, and spoke at the Capitol against the military draft. The movement spread to other American cities, including Boston, St. Louis, Washington, and Seattle. By 1941, twenty-seven cities had Catholic Worker houses.
Like her contemporaries in the radical movement, Dorothy Day predicted that the Depression of the 1930’s was evidence that American capitalism was dying from its own structural weaknesses. To replace it, she envisioned Christian community: voluntary, cooperative, nonviolent, egalitarian, and distributist, based on production for need and not for profit. A just society would help to prevent evil. In the meantime, Day and the Catholic Worker movement supported stopgap measures, the right of workers to unionize, earn fair wages, and improve industrial safety. Maurin’s “green revolution,” an alternative to industrialism and urbanization, was translated into Catholic Worker farming communes, the first of which was founded within a few years. On the communes, Catholic Worker families, volunteers, and guests theoretically would live in rural simplicity and produce food for their own use. The contrasts between theory and reality posed some of the more problematic aspects of the Catholic Worker movement. Intellectuals, unemployed industrial workers, and the frail were rarely equipped to run a farm.
A socialist opponent of World War I, Dorothy Day was predisposed to Christian pacifism. Clinging to the belief that the possession of arms leads to war, the Catholic convert believed that human life was sacred and must be protected. Since she understood violence to be an ever-escalating condition, each conflict breeding greater violence to counter it, Day found no moral justification for war. To critics who scoffed at nonviolence, she replied that spiritual weapons, prayer, penance, and fasting, were the best defense against evil. During World War II, however, the novelty of Catholic pacifism divided the Catholic Worker movement. Dissenting volunteers claimed that war was a lesser evil than fascism.
Day put pacifism into practice in several ways. She opposed the military draft and supported the right of conscientious objection. Urging noncooperation with the war effort, Day suggested that workers should not take jobs in defense plants, and she refused to pay war taxes. When Japanese Americans were sent to armed detention camps for the duration of the war, she was one of a handful who criticized the federal government order. The use of the atomic bomb on civilian targets likewise sparked her outrage. In the Cold War era, Day promoted peace through nonviolence and was arrested for challenging compulsory Civil Defense air raid drills. The nuclear arms race and its potential for global holocaust emboldened Dorothy Day to educate the bishops of the Catholic church about pacifism when they gathered in Rome for the Second Vatican Council. During the Vietnam War, she supported new Catholic peace groups and was widely credited for building the foundation of modern Catholic pacifism.
Weakened by heart trouble for more than a decade and barely able to write her monthly column, Dorothy Day died in 1980 at the age of eighty-three.
Dorothy Day revitalized American Catholicism. She found ways for volunteers to work for a nonviolent revolution within the church and to care for the immediate needs of the poor and oppressed. Her inclusive understanding of Christian community led to the establishment of the first true Catholic pacifist movement in the United States. Her steady leadership for nearly fifty years made the Catholic Worker one of the most durable of American alternative movements. Her deep faith and good judgment preserved CW religious orthodoxy and prevented church officials from silencing her or dismantling the controversial movement.
Dorothy Day’s powerful writing attracted volunteers and introduced pacifism and nonviolent direct action to Catholics. During the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Day was among those who moved the Catholic church toward pacifism. She was justly celebrated for her contributions to nonviolent change by the American bishops in a 1983 pastoral statement on peace.
Since 1933, the Catholic Worker has challenged many injustices: poverty, war, and racism. In death, Dorothy Day lives through her writings, the work of her followers, and in the memories of all who have been touched by her deep faith in Christian radicalism. The Catholic Worker, still sold for a penny, and Catholic Workers throughout the United States, England, Canada, Australia, and Mexico bring Day’s message of nonviolent revolution to a new generation.
Coles, Robert. Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1987. Psychiatrist Coles’s brief study features excerpts from taped interviews with Day, but offers surprisingly little psychological analysis.
Coles, Robert. A Spectacle unto the World: The Catholic Worker Movement. New York: Viking Press, 1973. A generous selection of photographs accompanies a short text about Day and the Catholic Worker movement. Largely ignores the revolutionary aspects of the movement by focusing on activities at the House of Hospitality.
Day, Dorothy. Dorothy Day, Selected Writings: By Little and by Little. Edited by Robert Ellsberg. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1992. A wide-ranging anthology of Day’s writings on social and spiritual issues drawn from published works. Ellsberg’s well-crafted biographical introduction is based on a personal relationship with Day and careful scholarship.
Day, Dorothy. The Long Loneliness. New York: Harper & Row, 1952. An autobiography written primarily to explain her conversion and the work of the Catholic Worker movement especially relating to the poor, the labor movement, gospel pacifism, and nonviolent social revolution. Weak on the period from 1918 through 1924.
Klejment, Anne, and Alice Klejment. Dorothy Day and “The Catholic Worker”: A Bibliography and Index. New York: Garland, 1986. Helpful for researchers. Lists all known publications by Day, indexes The Catholic Worker from 1933 through 1983, and comments on selected titles.
McNeal, Patricia. Harder than War: Catholic Peacemaking in Twentieth-Century America. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992. Examines leading American Catholic peace organizations and peace advocates with emphasis on the formative role played by Day and her movement in the emergence of Catholic pacifism.
Miller, William D. A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. New York: Liveright, 1973. Dated, but an interesting history of the Catholic Worker movement with portraits of many key figures and quotes from volunteers.
O’Connor, June. The Moral Vision of Dorothy Day: A Feminist Perspective. New York: Crossroad, 1991. Views Day as a writer, woman, convert, radical, and moralist and presents her as an occasionally antifeminist feminist.
Piehl, Mel. Breaking Bread: The Catholic Worker and the Origin of Catholic Radicalism in America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982. A demanding but rewarding work that explains the religious context of the movement. Roughly covers events to 1965.
Roberts, Nancy L. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1984. One of the most readable accounts of Day’s life at the Catholic Worker with a focus on Day the advocacy journalist.