Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day was born in Brooklyn on 8th November, 1897. Her father John Day, was a journalist. In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness (1952) she recaled: "Being from Tennessee, he had the prevalent attitude of the South toward the Negro. He distrusted all foreigners and agitators... Probably his greatest unhappiness came from us whose ideas he did not understand and which he thought were subversive and dangerous to the peace of the country."

Dorothy's brother, Donald Day, began work for The Day Book, and at a penny a copy, it aimed for a working-class market, crusading for higher wages, more unions, safer factories, lower streetcar fares, and women’s right to vote. It also tackled the important stories ignored by most other dailies. According to Duane C. S. Stoltzfus, the author of Freedom from Advertising (2007): "The Day Book served as an important ally of workers, a keen watchdog on advertisers, and it redefined news by providing an example of a paper that treated its readers first as citizens with rights rather than simply as consumers."

Day later admitted that the newspaper informed her about people like Eugene Debs and organisations such as the Industrial Workers of the World: "Through the paper I learned of Eugene Debs, a great and noble labor leader of inspired utterance. There were also accounts of the leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World who had been organizing in their one great union so that there were a quarter of a million members throughout the wheatfields, mines, and woods of the Northwest, as well as in the textile factories in the East."

In 1914 Day became a student at the University of Illinois. While at university she met Rayna Prohme. Day later recorded in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness (1952): "On many occasions I had noticed a young girl, slight and bony, deliciously awkward and yet un self-conscious, alive and eager in her study. She had bright red curly hair. It was loose enough about her face to form an aureole, a flaming aureole, with sun and brightness in it. Her eyes were large, reddish brown and warm, with interest and laughter in them... I can see Rayna lying on her side in a dull green dress, her cheek cupped in her hand, her eyes on the book she was reading, her mouth half open in her intent interest."

During this period the two women read the socialist novels of Upton Sinclair and Jack London. They joined the American Socialist Party and read the speeches and writings of William Haywood, Mother Jones, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Carlo Tresca. They also went to lectures given by Rose Pastor Stokes, Scott Nearing and Edgar Lee Masters.

Jim Forest argues in his biography of Day, Love is the Measure (1986) that: "The two became inseparable... The fact that she was Jewish meant that, despite family wealth, personal warmth and brilliance as a student, Rayna was invited into no sorority. Through Rayna, Dorothy had her first contact with anti-Semitism... During the summer, Dorothy stayed on a farm owned by Rayna's father, and in the fall she accepted Rayna's invitation to share her room in an Urbana boarding house for Jewish girls."

Another favourite author of Day's was Peter Kropotkin. "Kropotkin especially brought to my mind the plight of the poor, of the workers, and though my only experience of the destitute was in books." Kropotkin introduced Day to anarchism. She also became very interested in the ideas of Francisco Ferrer, an anarchist who had been executed in Barcelona in 1909 and Emma Goldman, who at the time was was a great advocate of free love. Although she approved of Goldman's anarchism she was "revolted by such promiscuity".

Day was keen to become a journalist like her father and brothers. In June 1916 she found work with the socialist journal, the New York Call. Chester Wright initially paid her $5 a week but eventually raised it to $12. One of her assignments was to interview Leon Trotsky who was living in exile on the Lower East Side. Trotsky told her that "where parliamentarianism was weakest the socialist movement was the strongest". He thought the First World War would lead to revolution: "The social unrest after the war will eclipse anything the world has ever seen."

A fellow journalist at the newspaper was Michael Gold. He used to visit her in her room and the landlady notified her mother of "Dorothy's immoral conduct". Jim Forest argues in his biography of Day, Love is the Measure (1986): "It is not surprising that gossip about them continued to be plentiful. The two spent long hours walking the streets, sitting on piers along the waterfront on the East River, talking about life and sharing experiences about the passion that had brought them both to The Call - the sufferings of the poor."

On 2nd April 1917 resigned from New York Call. A few weeks later she joined The Masses, a radical journal edited by Max Eastman. The assistant editor, Floyd Dell, later recalled: "For a while my assistant on The Masses was Dorothy Day, an awkward and charming young enthusiast, with beautiful slanting eyes, who had been a reporter." Day became friendly with the talented John Reed: "He was a big, hearty Harvard graduate, a typical newspaperman, and very much the Richard Harding Davis reporter hero. Wherever there was excitement, wherever life was lived in high tension, there he was, writing, speaking, recording the moment, and heightening its intensity for everyone else."

Michael Gold introduced Day to Peggy Baird. The two became close friends. Jim Forest points out: "Peggy was an artist who lived in a large, wildly unkempt room and who was baffled at Dorothy's seeming immunity to sexual temptation." Peggy was very promiscuous and told Dorothy that sex was "a barrier that kept men and women from fully understanding each other, and thus a barrier to be broken down". Peggy recruited Dorothy as a nude model. During one session she told her "you'll probably have a beautiful figure by the time you're thirty."

Day was also a supporter of women's suffrage and worked closely with Alice Paul and Lucy Burns of the Congressional Union for Women Suffrage (CUWS). The CUWS and attempted to introduce the militant methods used by the Women's Social and Political Union in Britain. This included organizing huge demonstrations and the daily picketing of the White House. In November 1917, Day was one of the 168 women arrested and jailed for "obstructing traffic". The women went on hunger strike and afraid that martyrs would be created, Woodrow Wilson ordered their release.

Like most of the people working for The Masses, Day believed that the First World War had been caused by the imperialist competitive system and that the USA should remain neutral. When the USA declared war on the Central Powers in 1917, The Masses came under government pressure to change its policy. When it refused to do this, the journal lost its mailing privileges.

In July, 1917, it was claimed by the authorities that cartoons by Art Young, Boardman Robinson and H. J. Glintenkamp and articles by Eastman and Floyd Dell had violated the Espionage Act. Under this act it was an offence to publish material that undermined the war effort. The legal action that followed forced The Masses to cease publication.

Day now decided to leave journalism and she signed up for a nurse's training program in Brooklyn. She also began attending services at St. Joseph's Catholic Church. Day later explained that she saw the Catholic Church as the "church of the poor". Religion also helped her deal with the psychological problems caused by an abortion that she had during a love affair with a journalist. This experience provided the material for her autobiographical novel, The Eleventh Virgin (1924).

Day lived with the anarchist, Forster Batterham, for three years. When Day gave birth to Tamar Batterham, in 1927, she had her daughter baptized in the Catholic Church. This ended her relationship with Batterham, who was completely opposed to all forms of religion.

In December 1932 Day met Peter Maurin, a Christian Brother. They decided to establish the Catholic Worker, a newspaper to publicize Catholic social teaching. The first edition appeared on 1st May, 1933. The newspaper criticised the economic system and supported organisation such as trade unions that were attempting to create a more equal society. It also argued that the Catholic Church should be a pacifist organization. Day and Maurin believed the nonviolent way of life was at the heart of the Gospel.

The Catholic Worker became a vehicle for creating a national movement. By 1936 there were 33 Catholic Worker Houses spread out across the country. These were charitable, self-help communities for people suffering the effects of the Depression. Today there are 130 of these houses in 32 states and eight foreign countries.

The Catholic Worker encountered problems during the Spanish Civil War. Most Catholics in the United States supported the fascists and saw Franco as the defender of the Catholic faith. As pacifists, Day and Maurin refused to support either side. As a result the newspaper lost two-thirds of its readers.

Day also maintained her pacifism during the Second World War. This was an unpopular stance to take and over the next few months fifteen Catholic Worker Houses were forced to close as volunteer workers withdrew their support from the organization.

After the war Day joined with David Dillinger and Abraham Muste to establish the Direct Action magazine in 1945. Dellinger once again upset the political establishment when he criticised the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the 1950s Day became involved in the campaign against nuclear weapons. This led to Day being arrested several times for civil disobedience and was imprisoned four times between 1955 and 1959. Day was also involved in the campaign for black civil rights and an end to the Vietnam War. In 1973, aged 75, Day was imprisoned again after taking part in a banned picket line in support of the United Farm Workers in California.

As well as writing over 1,000 articles for the Catholic Worker, Day wrote several books including, Houses of Hospitality (1939), an account of the Catholic Worker movement, an autobiography, The Long Loneliness (1952) and On Pilgrimage: the Sixties (1972).

Dorothy Day died on 29th November, 1980.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Jim Forest, Love is the Measure (1986)

It took five months before she arrived at the place where, given her politics, she might have first applied: the offices of New York's one Socialist daily, The Call, down on Pearl Street, near the Brooklyn Bridge in lower Manhattan. A small and struggling paper with office space over a printing plant, here there was no one to ward off visitors who wanted to talk to the city editor. A copy boy rushing downstairs to the press room ignored her. There were a few men busy at their typewriters and several others reading copy at another desk. She introduced herself to the editor and asked him for a job. Chester Wright had no objection to women journalists, nor did he mind that she was young and new to reporting. The problem was, he told her, that The Call hadn't enough money to hire her. "Why, we hardly have enough money to pay the office boy!"

"That's all right," she assured him. "I wasn't expecting a big salary." She argued that the paper needed a woman reporter on the staff; there were people who might talk more easily to a woman than a man, and doors she might get through that men would find locked.

"I know, women reporters are always a good thing," Wright agreed, "but we're broke, simply broke."

While showing him her portfolio, Dorothy had an inspiration. She remembered there were some city policemen who had organized themselves into "diet squads" in order to demonstrate that the poor could live well enough on $5 a week. Some wealthy women in Chicago were feeding themselves on a quarter a day. If The Call would pay her just $5 a week-what a lot of factory girls were getting, she pointed out - she could be a "diet squad of one" and write from a more radical perspective about the experience for The Call.

Perhaps the idea appealed to Chester Wright, or perhaps he had developed admiration for the sheer bravado of this eager, ambitious, attractive young woman. He agreed to hire her for a month at $5 a week, and if he decided to keep her, somehow he would find the money to pay her $12 a week afterward.

The next morning Dorothy packed her suitcase, said goodbye to her parents, left the suitcase at The Call, and went out in search of her own lodging. On Cherry Street there were many tenements displaying "furnished room" signs and in one of them she easily found something that seemed suitable. Rent was $5 a month. There were vermin in the mattress, she found out during the first night, and the loose panes in her window rattled with the steady draft from the narrow air shaft beyond. With the draft came the stench from the hall toilets. At night the neighborhood cats "shrieked with almost human voices." Even so, Dorothy was delighted with what she had found and felt that she had been led to her new home by a guardian angel.

Having a room and a job, her sense of isolation evaporated. The staff of The Call quickly absorbed Dorothy into their social life, inviting her to join them at Child's Restaurant on Park Row in the small hours of the night after the day's edition had gone to press. Here they renewed their permanent arguments about their competing radical ideologies. Some of the staff favored the anarchist "Wobblies" who were attempting to gather all workers, whether skilled or unskilled, into one vast union. The Wobbly heroes included Big Bill Haywood and Joe Hill, the labor organizer who had been executed by a firing squad in Utah but whose songs were heard on every picket line. Others aligned themselves with the American Federation of Labor, whose membership was restricted to skilled industrial workers, the elite of labor, who took a longer and less revolutionary view of change than Wobblies. There were other factions as well, though as vet there was no Communist Party. Socialism, in its variety, was well represented by The Call's staff. Dorothy took no sides.

(2) Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness (1952)

Although The Call was politically a Socialist paper there was a four-sided struggle going on among the men who made up the top staff. There were those who were in sympathy with the American Federation of Labor, opposing the Amalgamated Clothing Workers who were out of the Federation. There were those who favored the Industrial Workers of the World. The reporters on the Call were naturally attracted to the Wobblies, as the I.W.W.'s were called, because they believed in direct action and were impatient of the dialectic of the orthodox Marxist. The industrial workers opposed the craft workers of the old AFL, calling the skilled workers of the federation the aristocrats of labor. The leadership was outstanding. Bill Haywood in the West, Joe Hill in the Southwest, and in the East, Arturo Giovannitti and Joe Ettor, who led the strikes in the Lawrence and Paterson mills. These two men were arrested during the Lawrence strike and their places were taken by Carlo Tresca and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Both these strikes took place before I began to work on The Call, but I heard Gurley Flynn, as she was called, speak at meetings for the Mesabi Iron Range strikers and I was thrilled by her fire and vision. Later, after the Russian Revolution, she became a Communist as many of the IWW members did, and right now at this writing she is under arrest with other leaders of the Communist party, for trying to do the same thing she was doing then, change the social order. Only now it is the Communist dictatorship she is working for, rather than a free society of decentralized and federated groups such as the IWW envisaged.

Those IWW workers who did not go over to the Communists were organized into the great industrial unions of the CIO, the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Today there is, only a remnant left, and their weekly paper, The Industrial Worker, still published in Chicago, is placed on the subversive list.

At the time I worked for The Call there were also the small anarchist groups.

Anarchism, according to the American Encyclopedia, is a vaguely defined doctrine which would abolish the state "and other established social and economic institutions and establish a new order based on free and spontaneous co-operation among individuals, groups, regions and nations. Actually anarchism is not one doctrine but many; practically every theoretical Anarchist has had his own distinctive ideas."

Prince Kropotkin, for instance, was a scientist by avocation, who, after being trained in a military school as a personal aide to the Czar, chose a regiment going to Siberia so that he could engage in his scientific pursuits, work with the geographical society, and explore the natural resources of Russia. Later on in his explorations of Finland and Siberia, after active experience of co-operation, he pointed out that the voluntary association of men on a scientific expedition worked out better than the regimentation of military men. He lived and worked so closely with peasants and artisans that his writings, Fields, Factories and Workshops, Mutual Aid, and The Conquest of Bread, are practical handbooks.

Francisco Ferrer, the Spaniard, on the other hand, expended all his energy and practical ability in the founding of free schools, establishing hundreds of them in Spain. Sacco and Vanzetti were syndicalists, engaged in organizing of workers and calling for the abolition of the wage system.

Anarchism has been called an emotional state of mind, denouncing injustice and extolling freedom, rather than a movement. There was anarchism in ancient Greece. Zeno believed that freedom and equality would bring out the essential goodness of human nature. Kropotkin looked back to the guilds and cities of the Middle Ages, and thought of the new society as made up of federated associations, co-operating in the same way as the railway companies of Europe or the postal departments of various countries co-operate now...

Emma Goldman was the great exponent of free love in those days, and lectured on the subject, as well as on birth control, literature, anarchism, war, revolution. She had many lovers, and later when she wrote her story Living my Life, she spoke most frankly of her affairs. As I remember it, I was revolted by such promiscuity and even when her book came out would not read it because I was offended in my sex. Men who are revolutionaries, I thought, do not dally on the side as women do, complicating the issue by an emphasis on the personal.

I am quite ready to concede now that men are the single-minded, the pure of heart, in these movements. Women by their very nature are more materialistic, thinking of the home, the children, and of all things needful to them, especially love. And in their constant searching after it, they go against their own best interests. So, I say, I do not really know myself as I was then. I do not know how sincere I was in my love of the poor and my desire to serve them. I know that I was in favor of the works of mercy as we know them, regarding the drives for food and clothing for strikers in the light of justice, and an aid in furthering the revolution. But I was bent on following the journalist's side of the work. I wanted the privileges of the woman and the work of the man, without following the work of the woman. I wanted to go on picket lines, to go to jail, to write, to influence others and so make my mark on the world. How much ambition and how much self-seeking there was in all this!

(3) Floyd Dell wrote about Dorothy Day working at The Masses in his autobiography, Homecoming (1933)

For a while my assistant on The Masses was Dorothy Day, an awkward and charming young enthusiast, with beautiful slanting eyes, who had been a reporter and subsequently was one of the militant suffragists who were imprisoned in Washington and went on a successful hunger strike to get themselves accorded the rights of political prisoners; she wrote a delightful novel, The Eleventh Virgin, about those days, in which fact is mingled with I do not know how much fiction. I think that I recognize "Hugh Brace" in her book as intended for me: "a tall, slightly-built youth who was thirty-three and looked twenty-three. There was a look of great delicacy about him, an appearance of living in the night-hours and sleeping during the day. As a matter of fact, most of his work was done at night, not only his own writing, but his editorial work on the Flame, a monthly magazine... You did not notice the color of his hair or eyes. They were contradictory eyes. They were curiously detached and yet luminously sympathetic. During the course of the lunch, June noticed that his clothes as well as his manners had the same awkwardness. It came, she thought, from extreme shyness, and remained with him even when he forgot himself in the heat of discussion. Behind his writing desk, he had poise. With a pen in his hand, he was gracious as well as graceful. He lost neither his dignity nor his train of thought when interrupted... In back of his apparent softness there was a streak of iron and he was never ill" - a very flattering portrait.

(4) Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness (1952)

It was after the suppression of The Masses that I again went to Washington, this time with a group to picket the White House with the suffragists. It was mainly because my friend Peggy Baird was going that I decided one evening to accompany her. The women's party who had been picketing and serving jail sentences had been given very brutal treatment, and a committee to uphold the rights of political prisoners had been formed.

Hypolite Havel, who had been in so many jails in Europe, described to us the rights of political prisoners which he insisted had been upheld by the Czar himself in despotic Russia: the right to receive mail, books and visitors, to wear one's own clothes, to purchase extra food if needed, to see one's lawyer. The suffragists in Washington had been treated as ordinary prisoners, deprived of their own clothing, put in shops to work, and starved on the meager food of the prison. The group who left New York that night were prepared to go on a hunger strike to protest the treatment of the score or more women still in prison.

In Washington it was known by the press and police that the picket line that day would be unusually large so when we left the headquarters of the women's party the park across from the White House was crowded with spectators. Many police held back the crowd and kept the road clear for the women picketers.

They started out, two by two, with colored ribbons of purple and gold across the bosoms of their dresses and banners in their hands. There was a religious flavor about the silent proceedings. To get to the White House gates one had to walk halfway around the park. There were some cheers from women and indignation from men, who wanted to know if the President did not have enough to bother him, and in wartime too! By the time the third contingent of six women reached the gates - I was of this group - small boys were beginning to throw stones, and groups of soldiers and sailors appearing from the crowd were trying to wrest the banners from the hands of the women. The police arrived at once with a number of patrol wagons. I had to struggle for my banner too, with a red-faced young sailor, before a policeman took me by the arm and escorted me to the waiting police van. Our banners were carried, protruding from the back of the car, and we made a gay procession through the streets.

Bail had been provided for us and after our names and addresses were taken at the police station we were released. The trial was set for ten o'clock the next morning. When the thirty-five of us appeared, the judge pronounced us guilty and postponed the sentence.

Again that afternoon we picketed and again there was arrest, release on bail, trial and postponement. The tactics were then changed, and when we were arrested once more and taken to the Central Station, we refused to give bail and were put in the House of Detention for the night.

The facilities there were inadequate for so many prisoners. We had to sleep fifteen in a room meant for two, with cots cheek by jowl so that it was impossible to stir. The next morning we were all sentenced. Many of the women on receiving their sentences took the occasion to make speeches to the judge, who sat patiently though somewhat uncomfortably facing the righteous wrath of the thirty-five women.

The leader of the picketers received a sentence of six months, the older women were sentenced to fifteen days, and the rest of us to thirty days. We started our hunger strike right after receiving our sentences. The scant meal of weak coffee, oatmeal and bread was the last one we expected to have until our demands (for the rights of political prisoners) were granted or we were released. I was too excited to worry much about food. I was to find that one of the ugliness of jail life was its undertone of suppressed excitement and suspense. It was an ugly and a fearful suspense, not one of normal hope and expectation...

Finally, at four o'clock, things began to happen to us. Prison wagons were brought, wagons that had only ventilators along the top and were otherwise closed. Two of them sufficed to carry the prisoners to the jail. When they reached that barren institution on the outskirts of the city, backed by a cemetery and surrounded by dreary bare fields, there was another long halt in the proceedings. After a low argument at the entrance (we never heard what people were saying and that too was part of the torture), the police vans were turned away and started off in another direction.

Those women who had served sentence before knew that we were being taken to the workhouse, and many stories had been told of what the prisoners had suffered at the hands of the violent keeper there, a man named Whittaker. We were all afraid.

It had been completely black in the prison vans but when we were ushered by a number of policewomen into a waiting train which rolled out of station immediately, the lamps along the road had not yet been lit. It was the beginning of November, and I sat with my face pressed against the glass watching the blue twilight, pierced with the black shapes of many scrawny trees. Here and there lamps glowed in farmhouse windows. In the west the sky still held the radiance of the sun which faded gradually and left one with a terrible sense of desolation and loneliness. It was sadly beautiful at that time of night. I was glad for the company of my friend Peggy, and we tried to stay near each other so that we would not be separated later.

There was more waiting after we had been driven from the railroad station to the administration building of the workhouse. A matron tried to take our names and case histories, which all of us refused to give.

We waited there in the administration building, while the matron sat behind her desk and knitted. The spokeswoman for our group was an elderly woman from a socially prominent family in Philadelphia and she had asked to see Mr. Whittaker, the superintendent, before we were assigned to our cells. The matron paid no attention to her request but left us all standing, until of our own accord we took benches and chairs about the room. Some of the younger ones sat on the floor and leaned against the wall. We were beginning to be very tired.

(5) Dorothy Day, The Catholic Worker (December 1950)

There are two billion people in the world and if we believed all we read in the paper everyone must line up on the side of Communism or Americanism, Catholicism, Capitalism, which the most Catholic newspapers would have us believe are synonymous. Of course, there are bad Americans, bad Catholics and bad capitalists, but still, they say, you can't print such holy pictures as you have in this Christmas issue in Russia, and you can't oppose war and the draft and taxes, as you do, without being thrown into concentration camps, if you are in Russia or a satellite country.

In our eulogies of poverty which we have printed again and again in The Catholic Worker, one of which is running in this issue of the paper, we write with the recognition that we stand as Americans, representing in the eyes of the world the richest nation on earth. What does it matter that we live with the poor, with those of the skid rows, and that those in our other houses throughout the country are living with poverty which is so great a scandal in a land of plenty. We know that we can never attain to the poverty of the destitute around us. We awake with it in our ears in the morning, listening to the bread line forming under our window, and we see it lined up even on such a day as the gale of last Saturday when glass and tin and bricks were flying down the street. The only way we can make up for it is by giving of our time, our strength, our cheerfulness, our loving kindness, our gentleness to all.

(6) Dorothy Day, speech in Memphis, Tennessee (1954)

We need always to remember that it is atheistic Communism which we oppose, but as for economic Communism - it is a system which has worked admirably in religious orders for two thousand years. The bishops once stated that many of the social aims of the Communist are Christian aims and must be worked for by Catholics. In our parishes and communities we should have credit unions, maternity guilds, and insurance benefit societies which would reach God's poorest. If we are trying to see Christ in our neighbor, we must see to his dignity, his worth, his position as a son of God. And to do this, it is not enough just to help out in an emergency. It is necessary to build a society where people are able by their work to sustain themselves, but also by mutual aid, to bear one another's burdens, when by sickness or accident men are unable to work.

(7) The actress Judith Malinia went to prison with Dorothy Day in 1955 (June, 1955)

Dorothy became very quickly a legend in the prison. There was a lot of press at the time and a picket line outside. Everybody was aware of it, and we were certainly celebrities of a sort inside the prison. Most of the guards were Catholic, and they came to her and had their Bibles blessed and their rosaries kissed.