Dorothy Day Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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.


(The entire section is 2123 words.)