Inspirational and Influential Women of the World: Dorothy Day

Part VI of the Inspirational and Influential Women of the World Blog Series

“Don’t Call Me A Saint.” – Dorothy Day 

To call Dorothy Day a saint would be to dismiss her and her life’s work too easily, according to Ms. Day (Catholic Education). Born in New York City in 1897, Dorothy lived a balanced life of freedom and service until her passing in 1980 in New York City. She was the middle child in a family of seven in a two-parent Protestant household. Her mother was a homemaker and her father was a sports writer, which caused the family to move twice until they landed in Chicago where they stayed for over a decade. 

An intelligent young lady who enjoyed the liberal arts, Dorothy enrolled in college at the University of Illinois at the age of 16 to study journalism. Her collegiate life was short-lived and only lasted 2 years but had a huge impact on her life moving forward by exposing her to different social conditions.

“There was a great question in my mind. Why was so much done in remedying social evils instead of avoiding them in the first place? . . . Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves but to do away with slavery?” (The Catholic Worker)

She soon left the University of Illinois and moved to New York where she continued to practice journalism while immersing herself in socialist ideology. She was only 18 years old.

The Bohemian

Being young in New York and living in free-spirited Greenwich Village allowed Dorothy to be immersed in art and activism. She began living a very passionate life as a “progressive activist and an artistic bohemian.” Her journalism surrounded her with anarchists and free thinkers and various types of liberals overall who were motivated to change social conditions, “She reported on protests, the ‘bread riots’ against the high cost of living, strikes, unemployment, and the many forms of human misery.” (The Catholic Worker) Writing captivating stories, being arrested for protests, and having lovers was nothing new for her during this segment of her life. It was through one of these lovers, writer Lionel Moise, that Dorothy became pregnant and, in an effort to keep Moise, had an abortion. He still ended up leaving her. 

Her writing as well as her commitment to social justice took her to Europe, Chicago, New Orleans, California, and eventually back to New York. It was during this time that she wrote and published her book, which was eventually adapted into a screenplay, called The Eleventh Virgin. And with money from the book’s sales, she bought a beach house on Staten Island which remained in her possession until her death.  

Catholic Worker Movement 

Although immersed in a Bohemian lifestyle, Dorothy’s view of God never faltered. As life went on in her beach house, so too did her writing and activism. It was with her partner at the time, Forster Batterham, that she became pregnant again. Not wanting to live with the regret she experienced with her past abortion, she decided to have the child, a daughter by the name of Tamar – her only child. With the birth of Tamar, Dorothy became more in-tune with the Catholic Church. And after her daughter’s baptism, converted to Catholicism in 1927.

She became a devout Catholic and continued to write but felt that she had more to offer. It was during this time, the Great Depression, that she met Peter Maurin. Peter encouraged Dorothy to start the Catholic Worker newspaper as a way to encourage people to apply Catholic social teachings to everyday life. It was from the newspaper that the Catholic Worker Movement came to be, which is what Dorothy Day is most known for helping to co-found. From the movement was the establishment of homes known as Catholic Worker Houses, in which simple living was practiced and hospitality was given to those in need,

“Her basic message was stunningly simple: We are called by God to love one another as He loves us.  If God was one keyword, hospitality was another.  She repeated, again and again, a saying from the early Church, ‘Every home should have a Christ room in it, so that hospitality may be practiced.’ ‘Hospitality,’ she explained, ‘is simply practicing God’s mercy with those around us.’” (Catholic Education)   

Conclusion

A writer, activist, Bohemian, devout Catholic, and mother, Dorothy Day was many things and lived many lives. To call her a saint would dismiss her too easily because she was more than that, she was a human being.  Her three autobiographies, The Long Loneliness, From Union Square to Rome, and The Eleventh Virgin all capture Ms. Day’s many lives. I find it odd that so many people want to canonize her because it was clear from the way that she lived her life that she never wanted to be glorified. It seems the best way to show appreciation for her and her work is to continue to show compassion and mercy to those around us.

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