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Dorothy Day

This passage is excerpted from a larger essay written about Catholic laywomen reformers. It is incomplete as is, but could be developed into a larger paper.

After all, the article was written well after the publication in 1984, of Nancy L. Roberts book, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workerin which she argues that Day, most definitely was a radical reformer. Skok seems to define reformers as those who worked for political change within existing governmental structures, those works which address Catholic lay women who advocated for welfare reforms, and minimum wage campaigns are included in her study. She argued that “compared to non-Catholic women, Catholic laywomen appear to have been more dependent on men – especially politicians and liberal bishops – for the survival of their institutions, for their reform work, and for their roles in government.”[1]Since the Catholic Worker Movement and Day herself was not interested in reformation campaigns that worked with or campaigned against existing governmental structures, it can be concluded that Skok did not consider her a reformer in the same way that she considered other Catholic laywomen. Or, perhaps because her study was confined to the Progressive Era, Day was omitted.

The standard answer is that Catholic women are, stereotypically, not categorized as reformers. Unlike Protestant women reformers, she belonged to a minority faith tradition, did not advocate for legislative change and never voted. She was jailed and investigated by the FBI. She was influenced by Kropotkin and communism, Pope Leo XIII, a French peasant named Peter Maurin, and a deep and abiding obedience to the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church. Despite her contributions to peace and justice, personalism and pacifism, she is precluded from being considered a reformer although she devoted her entire life to a movement she co-founded, called the Catholic Workerwhich sought to transform society, one person at a time, through the values shared in their special brand of advocacy journalism in the Catholic Worker newspaper, their Houses of Hospitality, farm communes and principles of ‘love in action.’

Dorothy Day, born November 8, 1897 in Brooklyn, New York, was the third or five children born to Grace Satterlee and John I. Day. The Day home was staunchly Republican and conservative.[2]Her Scotch-Irish father was a newspaper man from a family of farmers and physicians from Cleveland, Tennessee. His Calvinist religious background was evidenced through his work ethic. Her English mother was from a family of merchants and mill workers who had established themselves in New York and was a member of the Episcopalian church.[3]Her father valued an “orderly, quiet life” and Dorothy grow up sheltered. As was common during this period, her father believed in traditional gender roles, that women and children belonged in the home. No detective or dime store novels were allowed, but “the Bible, Scott, Hugo, Dickens, Stevenson, Cooper and Poe” were, and Dorothy and her siblings devoured these works eagerly.[4]Although both parents had come from religious backgrounds, Day recalled that, “the name of God was never mentioned, mother and father never went to church, none of us children had been baptized and to speak of the soul was to speak immodestly, uncovering which might better remain hidden.”[5]Although Day’s family was not religious, she attended the Episcopalian church by herself to satisfy her longings for a spirituality which was missing in her upbringing.

During high school, Day’s family lived in Chicago. She was moved deeply by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and read Kropotkin’s Memoirs of a Revolutionist, along with Jack London and Upton Sinclair’s expose of the meat-packing industry and poverty of the West Side.[6]These authors and their works had a most profound impact on Dorothy and it was during this time that she developed a deep and abiding interest in, and sympathy for, the poor. At the age of sixteen, she was accepted at the University of Illinois. It was during her college years that she became something of a free spirit. She began smoking cigarettes and “uttered unladylike words such as ‘damn’ and ‘hell,’ joined the Socialist Workers’ Party, frequently skipped the classes she found boring.”[7]During her sophomore year of college, her family moved to New York and she joined them. Because of her father’s admonition that “no daughter of his was going to work and live at home,” Day moved out and got a job writing for the Socialist Callfor five dollars a week and her life as a writer and journalist began.[8]

Although her friends were Communists and she was an activist, even her friends recognized a deep spiritual longing in Dorothy. She recalled that in the Twenties, “many of her leftist friends used to say, ‘Dorothy’s never going to be a good Communist. She’s too religious.’”[9]It was during this period that she was engaged, got pregnant, had an abortion, gave birth to her daughter, Tamar and was baptized as a Roman Catholic on December 28, 1927. This religious conversion was precipitated by her daughter’s birth and as Day explained,

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 felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore. I had heard many say that they wanted to worship God in their own way and did not need a Church in which to praise Him … But my very experience as a radical, my whole make-up, led me to want to associate myself with others, with the masses, in praising and adoring God.[10]

As a loyal Catholic traditionalist, she began to work to integrate that new self with her passion for social justice that she had cultivated while she was a young radical. It was a long and winding journey, but she finally found her purpose in 1932 in the midst of the Great Depression. Over twelve million people were unemployed and thousands in New York City could not afford rent, food or clothing. When she met Peter Maurin, Day said that, “he gave me ‘a way of life and instruction’.”[11]Together, they would cofound a movement that currently has 207 Catholic Worker communities in the United States and another 25 international communities in various European countries, Mexico, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Dominican Republic, Philippines, South Korea and Uganda.

Nancy L. Roberts, professor of communication and journalism, argues in her comprehensive work, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker,that the newspaper’s impact; a revolutionary union of compassionate social justice and peace work blended with Day’s unfailing devotion to Catholicism, disagreed with Skok and the stereotypical omission of Catholic laywomen from the tradition of reformers. Through her study, Roberts argues that the Catholic Worker movement has influenced both Catholic and secular leaders, especially those involved in peace and justice work, and that Day’s movement through times of struggle and hostility to its messaging of “love in action” has challenged several generations of American Catholics and non-Catholics to securitize their own commitment to peace and social justice.[12]Although Roberts does not call Day a “reformer,” it is clear that in her scholarship, she characterizes her as such.

At first working outside the structures of the hierarchy, Catholic Workers maintained that the actions they took were those of “individual Catholics” as opposed to those representing the Church and which often were contrary to Church teaching or established norms. However, in 1983, when the United States Bishop’s Conference published a pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace,” in which they condemned the use of nuclear weapons as immoral, Roberts notes that Day’s influence is explicit in their statement

In the twentieth century, prescinding from the non-Christian witness of a Mahatma Gandhi and its worldwide impact, the nonviolent witness of such figures as Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King has had profound impact upon the life of the Church in the United States. The witness of numerous Christians who had preceded them over the centuries was affirmed in a remarkable way at the Second Vatican Council. (#117)[13]

Day used her skills as a journalist and compassion for the “least of these” to influence people. Roberts’ argues that Day was “firmly committed to effecting social change through her journalism.”[14]She sought to use her platform which reached a circulation of 190,000 at its height (in March 1938), to awaken people not only to the plight of the worker, but also to their own spiritual condition.[15]She sought to challenge people to conversion, as she herself had experienced conversion because she knew that conversion provided purpose for individuals and stamped out the compliancy that allowed the conditions experienced during the Great Depression, the Cold War and the nuclear arms race.

Roberts’ argues that Day accepted a self-subordination to men and rejection of feminism and was a result of her traditional Catholic beliefs and a product of her time. Dorothy believed that it was “man’s job to argue and talk; women’s job to serve and administer,” this was why the partnership between Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin was so fruitful.[16]Maurin gave Day creditability and opened doors for her. He was a cradle Catholic, someone who had been baptized as an infant and had even been part of a religious order in France before his arrival in America, but more importantly because he was male. Dorothy was seen as a radical, one who spoke truth to power and challenged the authority of the hierarchy in ways that made them deeply uncomfortable. When the hierarchy tried to pressure the Catholic Worker into leaving the Archdiocese, she worked more diligently to make herself appear as a loyalist. She was purposeful about not chiding the Church for what it taught, only for failing to uphold the teaching.[17]Consequently, Day was banned from some parishes and faced criticism from secular and religious sources.

[1]Skok, 16

[2]DD 18

[3]DD 17

[4]DD 18

[5]DD 18

[6]DD 19

[7]DD 19

[8]DD 20

[9]DD 23

[10]DD 26


[12]DD 4

[13]The Challenge of Peace, #117

[14]DD 67

[15]DD 68

[16]DD 93


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